Tens of millions in danger as air quality plummets – WHO

Air pollution has been ranked alongside climate change as one of the biggest threats to human life in a hard hitting new report by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The organisation has issued its Global Air Quality Guidelines (AQGs) which it stated provides clear evidence of the damage air pollution inflicts on human health, at even lower concentrations than previously understood.

The guidelines recommend new air quality levels to protect the health of populations, by reducing levels of key air pollutants, some of which also contribute to climate change.

Given the new evidence the WHO said it had adjusted almost all the AQGs levels downwards, warning that exceeding the new air quality guideline levels is associated with significant risks to health. At the same time, however, adhering to them could save millions of lives.

“Every year, exposure to air pollution is estimated to cause 7 million premature deaths and result in the loss of millions more healthy years of life,” it stated. “In children, this could include reduced lung growth and function, respiratory infections and aggravated asthma. In adults, ischaemic heart disease and stroke are the most common causes of premature death attributable to outdoor air pollution, and evidence is also emerging of other effects such as diabetes and neurodegenerative conditions. This puts the burden of disease attributable to air pollution on a par with other major global health risks such as unhealthy diet and tobacco smoking.”

The report added: “Air pollution is one of the biggest environmental threats to human health, alongside climate change. Improving air quality can enhance climate change mitigation efforts, while reducing emissions will in turn improve air quality. By striving to achieve these guideline levels, countries will be both protecting health as well as mitigating global climate change.”

“Air pollution is a threat to health in all countries, but it hits people in low- and middle-income countries the hardest,” said WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “WHO’s new Air Quality Guidelines are an evidence-based and practical tool for improving the quality of the air on which all life depends. I urge all countries and all those fighting to protect our environment to put them to use to reduce suffering and save lives.”

Disparities in air pollution exposure are increasing worldwide, particularly as low- and middle-income countries are experiencing growing levels of air pollution because of large-scale urbanization and economic development that has largely relied on the burning of fossil fuels.

“Annually, WHO estimates that millions of deaths are caused by the effects of air pollution, mainly from noncommunicable diseases. Clean air should be a fundamental human right and a necessary condition for healthy and productive societies. However, despite some improvements in air quality over the past three decades, millions of people continue to die prematurely, often affecting the most vulnerable and marginalized populations,” said WHO Regional Director for Europe, Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge. “We know the magnitude of the problem and we know how to solve it. These updated guidelines give policy-makers solid evidence and the necessary tool to tackle this long-term health burden.”

The report warned global assessments of ambient air pollution alone suggest hundreds of millions of healthy life years of life lost, with the greatest attributable disease burden seen in low and middle-income countries. The more exposed to air pollution they are, the greater the health impact, particularly on individuals with chronic conditions (such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and heart disease), as well as older people, children and pregnant women.

In 2019, more than 90% of the global population lived in areas where concentrations exceeded the 2005 WHO air quality guideline for long term exposure to PM₂.₅. Countries with strong policy-driven improvements in air quality have often seen marked reduction in air pollution, whereas declines over the past 30 years were less noticeable in regions with already good air quality.

The new guidelines recommend air quality levels for six pollutants, where evidence has advanced the most on health effects from exposure. When action is taken on these so-called classical pollutants – particulate matter (PM), ozone (O₃), nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) sulphur dioxide (SO₂) and carbon monoxide (CO), it also has an impact on other damaging pollutants.

“The goal of the guideline is for all countries to achieve recommended air quality levels,” stated the report. “Conscious that this will be a difficult task for many countries and regions struggling with high air pollution levels, WHO has proposed interim targets to facilitate stepwise improvement in air quality and thus gradual, but meaningful, health benefits for the population.”

“Air pollution is a threat to health in all countries, but it hits people in low- and middle-income countries the hardest. WHO’s new Air Quality Guidelines are an evidence-based and practical tool for improving the quality of the air on which all life depends. I urge all countries and all those fighting to protect our environment to put them to use to reduce suffering and save lives.”

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO

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