An astonishing 99 per cent of the world’s population breathes polluted air that exceeds internationally approved limits, with negative health impacts kicking in at much lower levels than previously thought, medical scientists have warned.
Fossil fuels are responsible for most of the harmful emissions that are linked to acute and chronic sickness, according to the 2022 update of the World Health Organization’s air quality database released ahead of World Health Day on April 7.
The agency’s data indicates that 4.2 million people die from exposure to outdoor air pollution, in addition to the 3.8 million whose deaths are linked to household smoke produced by dirty stoves and fuels. And based on WHO’s mathematical modelling of available air pollution data from urban areas, almost every one of us faces an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, lung disease, cancer and pneumonia.
On the basis of these developments, the health agency is urging governments to take note that it has made significant revisions to its air quality indicators, including for particulate matter – known as PM2.5 that can enter the bloodstream, along with nitrogen dioxide (NO2), another common urban pollutant and precursor of particulate matter and ozone.
Particulate matter 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, while nitrogen 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.
Both groups of pollutants originate mainly from human activities related to fossil fuel combustion. Although people living in lower and middle-income countries are the most exposed to the pollutants, They are also the least covered in terms of air quality measurement.
Last year, the WHO revised its Air Quality Guidelines, making them more stringent in an effort to help countries better evaluate the healthiness of their own air. Now, some 2,000 more cities and human settlements now record ground monitoring data for particulate matter, PM10 and/or PM2.5, than in the last update. This marks an almost six-fold rise in reporting since the database launched in 2011.
Despite this progress, “the bad news is that we still have a majority of cities who do not comply with the air quality guidelines,” Dr Sophie Gumy, a Technical Officer at WHO’s Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health says adding that the people living in them are still breathing unhealthy levels of fine particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide.
As depressing and as dangerous as this situation is, the UN health agency insists that momentum has been growing for better air quality everywhere in the last decade. Proof of this is the fact that more than 6,000 cities in 117 countries now monitor air quality, compared to 1,100 cities in 91 countries a decade ago.
Welcoming the increasing number of cities that have begun to measure air quality for the first time, Dr Maria Neira, Director, WHO Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health, said that it was particularly significant that data is also being gathered on nitrogen dioxide.