No matter where you live, it’s very likely you are breathing air that largely exceeds air pollution internationally approved limits, according to a new report by the UN. Almost the entire population of the planet (99%) breathes polluted air, leading to negative health effects that are kicking in at much lower levels than previously thought.
The World Health Organization (WHO), a UN agency, published an update of its air quality database ahead of World Health Day on 7 April, including ground measurements of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a first for this type of reporting, as well as particulate matter with diameters equal to or smaller than 10 microns (PM10) and 2.5 microns (PM2.5).
It’s the most extensive air quality database yet in its coverage of air pollution exposure on the ground, WHO said. About 2,000 more cities and human settlements now record air pollution data for PM10 and PM2.5 compared to the last update. This means reporting has increased six-fold since the database was first launched in 2011.
“High fossil fuel prices, energy security, and the urgency of addressing the twin health challenges of air pollution and climate change underscore the pressing need to move faster towards a world that is much less dependent on fossil fuels,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, said in a media statement.
WHO’s data shows that 4.2 million people die every year from exposure to outdoor air pollution, in addition to the 3.8 million whose deaths are tied to household smoke produced by stoves and fuels. Based on WHO’s modeling of air pollution data, almost every individual faces a higher risk of heart disease, strong, cancer, and pneumonia due to this exposure.
While data showed last year that the pandemic and travel restrictions caused short-term improvements in air quality, WHO said air pollution is still a severe problem. Maria Nera, head of WHO’s public health department, said in a statement that it’s “unacceptable” to have seven million preventable deaths and lost years of good health due to air pollution.
Globally, low- and middle-income countries have the larger exposure to unhealthy levels of air pollution compared to the global average, with only 1% of the cities in that group of countries complying with WHO recommended thresholds. There’s also a big gap between rich and poor countries in terms of air pollution measurements available.
The WHO called on governments to intensify actions to tackle air pollution. These include better monitoring air quality, supporting the transition to exclusive use of clean household energy, building public transport systems, investing in energy efficiency in power generation, improving waste management, and avoiding waste incineration.
Air pollution is one of the leading environmental problems around the world. The average global citizen is estimated to lose 2.2 years of life with the current levels of air pollution, a study found last year based on satellite data. The researchers largely blamed fossil fuels from power plants, vehicles, and other industrial sources.
It can lead to a wide array of health problems. Air pollution can affect lung development and is implicated in many respiratory diseases. Studies have also linked air pollution with cancer and cardiovascular diseases. Not everyone is exposed on the same level, with children and elderly people living in cities being the most affected.