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Air pollution is one of the most dangerous environmental health threats the world faces today. It accounts for approximately 7 million deaths worldwide per year. Toxic particles emitted by industries and vehicles cause and aggravate several diseases, ranging from asthma and bronchitis to cancer and heart diseases. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), exposure to air pollutants is a much more critical risk factor for major non-communicable diseases than previously thought. New WHO global air quality guidelines were recently released to prevent further deaths and save more lives.
The new WHO global Air Quality Guidelines (AQGs) aim to provide clear evidence of the harsh impacts air pollution (high and low concentrations) has on human and planetary health. The new and strict guidelines recommend new air quality levels to reduce the impact on public health and protect the environment by decreasing the levels of air pollution. The new guidelines can also contribute to the mitigation of climate change and its effects.
The WHO last released its updated Air Quality Guidelines in 2005. Since then, a marked increase of evidence regularly showed how air pollution levels affect different aspects of health. After a proper and organizational review of the accumulated evidence, WHO adjusted most of its AQGs levels downward. It also warned of high public and planetary health risks if air pollution levels exceeded the new air quality guidelines. Following the new guidelines could save a million lives globally.
Exposure to high levels of pollutants causes millions of premature deaths every year and result in the loss of millions more healthy years. Impacts of air pollution on children and young adults could result in decreased lung growth and function, aggravated asthma and breathing problems, and respiratory infections.
In the case of adults, common causes of premature deaths caused by outdoor air pollution include stroke and ischaemic heart diseases. Other effects emerging due to the impact of air pollution are neurodegenerative conditions and diabetes. These increasing effects put the burden of disease attributable to air pollution on par with other major health risks such as tobacco smoking and an unhealthy diet.
Improving air quality can have numerous benefits. Reduction in toxic air pollutants can limit global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius, save human and animal lives, and improve the overall air in cities and urban areas. Countries aiming to follow and achieve the new guidelines strictly will be protecting their citizens’ lives as well as mitigating climate change.
The new WHO air quality guidelines recommend air quality levels for six different pollutants, where clear evidence has developed the most on health effects. These include particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), ozone (O3), and carbon monoxide (CO).
The health risks associated with PM smaller or equal to 10 and 2.5 microns in diameter are of particular public health relevance. PM2.5 and PM10 have the ability to penetrate deep into the lungs. PM2.5 can even reach the bloodstream, affecting all the body’s organs. PM is mainly produced by fuel combustion in different sectors, including household, transport, agriculture, etc.
According to the WHO Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, air pollution is a significant threat to all countries in the world. However, it affects people in low and middle-income countries the most. He further adds that WHO’s new global air quality guidelines are an evidence-based and practical tool for improving the air quality of a region. Dr. Ghebreyesus further urges countries and environmental organizations to follow the guidelines to reduce suffering and save lives.
Air pollution affects a few countries more than others. This trend continues to increase today. Low and middle-income countries are currently facing increasing levels of air pollution due to rapid urbanization and economic development- which mainly relies on the burning of fossil fuels.
According to the WHO Regional Director for Europe, Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge, estimates suggest that several deaths occur due to the effects of air pollution, primarily from non-communicable diseases. Clean air is recognized as a fundamental human right and as an essential condition for healthy societies. Despite improvements in air quality over the past three decades, millions of people continue to die, mostly affecting vulnerable and marginalized populations. The extent of the problem and its solution are known worldwide. The newly updated guideline provides decision-makers with hard evidence and the necessary tools to mitigate this long-term health burden.
Evaluations of ambient air pollution globally suggest thousands of healthy years of life lost, with low and middle-income countries mostly facing the heavy burden. The more exposed to air pollution these countries are, the greater the health impact, especially on individuals with chronic health conditions like asthma, heart disease, and more. Pregnant women, senior citizens, and children are also more likely to face harsh impacts.
In 2019, approximately 90 percent of the world’s population lived in areas with high air pollution exposure. It exceeded the 2005 WHO air quality guidelines for long-term exposure to PM2.5. Several countries with strong policy-driven improvements in air quality have seen a much more reduction in air pollution.
The main aim of the newly updated guidelines is for all countries to achieve the suggested air quality levels. The WHO has taken into account the issues and difficulties that several countries and regions face while achieving levels of air quality. And that is why it has proposed certain interim targets to facilitate gradual improvements in air quality. The stepwise improvements will take time but will also be effective.
According to a rapid scenario analysis performed by the WHO, approximately 80 percent of deaths attributed to PM2.5 can be avoided only if current air pollution levels reduce to those proposed in the new guidelines. Achieving the interim targets could significantly help in reducing the burden of diseases, of which the most benefits would be witnessed in countries with high concentrations of PM2.5.