Urgent warning as air pollution death toll tops 7 million

On the day the IPCC warned the world needs to end fossil fuel use and remove CO2 from the atmosphere, a new report warns almost every person on the planet is now living in an area where air quality is unsafe.

The World Health organisation (WHO) has issued its latest report which found almost the entire global population (99%) breathes air that exceeds WHO air quality limits and threatens their health. Air pollution is thought to be responsible for 7 million deaths a year.

The study found a record number of over 6,000 cities in 117 countries are now monitoring air quality, but the people living in them are still breathing unhealthy levels of fine particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide, with people in low and middle-income countries suffering the highest exposures.

The findings have prompted the WHO director general to say the time has come to curb fossil fuel use and take other tangible steps to reduce air pollution levels.

“Current energy concerns highlight the importance of speeding up the transition to cleaner, healthier energy systems,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “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.”

Released in the lead-up to World Health Day, on Thursday the World Health Organization’s air quality database introduces, for the first time, ground measurements of annual mean concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a common urban pollutant and precursor of particulate matter and ozone.  It also includes measurements of particulate matter with diameters equal or smaller than 10 μm (PM10) or 2.5 μm (PM2.5).  Both groups of pollutants originate mainly from human activities related to fossil fuel combustion.

“The new air quality database is the most extensive yet in its coverage of air pollution exposure on the ground,” said the WHO.  “Some 2,000 more cities/human settlements are now recording ground monitoring data for particulate matter, PM10 and/or PM2.5, than the last update. This marks an almost 6-fold rise in reporting since the database was launched in 2011.”

The organisation warns the evidence base for the damage air pollution does to the human body has been growing rapidly and points to significant harm caused by even low levels of many air pollutants.

Particulate matter, especially PM2.5, is capable of penetrating deep into the lungs and entering the bloodstream, causing cardiovascular, cerebrovascular (stroke) and respiratory impacts.  There is emerging evidence that particulate matter impacts other organs and causes other diseases as well.

NO2 is associated with respiratory diseases, particularly asthma, leading to respiratory symptoms (such as coughing, wheezing or difficulty breathing), hospital admissions and visits to emergency rooms

In the 117 countries monitoring air quality, the air in 17% of cities in high-income countries fall below the WHO’s Air Quality Guidelines for PM2.5 or PM10, the report found. In low and middle-income countries, air quality in less than 1% of the cities complies with WHO recommended thresholds.

Globally, low- and middle-income countries still experience greater exposure to unhealthy levels of PM compared to the global average, but NO2 patterns are different, showing less difference between the high- and low- and middle-income countries.

About 4,000 cities/human settlements in 74 countries collect NO2 data at ground level.  Aggregated, their measurements show that only 23% of people in these places breathe annual average concentrations of NO2 that meet levels in the recently updated version of WHO’s Air Quality Guidelines.

“After surviving a pandemic, it is unacceptable to still have 7 million preventable deaths and countless preventable lost years of good health due to air pollution. That’s what we’re saying when we look at the mountain of air pollution data, evidence, and solutions available. Yet too many investments are still being sunk into a polluted environment rather than in clean, healthy air,” said Dr Maria Neira, WHO director, Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health.

The study found a record number of over 6,000 cities in 117 countries are now monitoring air quality, but the people living in them are still breathing unhealthy levels of fine particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide, with people in low and middle-income countries suffering the highest exposures.

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