WHO tightens air pollution guidelines in bid to reduce early deaths
Image credit: reuters
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has made its air quality guidelines stricter in a bid to cut deaths from air pollution linked to fossil fuels.
The WHO said the new guidelines reflect the damage that air pollution can inflict on human health at even lower concentrations than previously thought. It recommends reducing levels of key air pollutants, some of which also contribute to climate change.
The WHO last updated its air quality guidelines in 2005, but there has been a marked increase of evidence that shows how air pollution affects different aspects of health since then.
After reviewing the latest evidence, it adjusted almost all of its maximum recommended airborne pollutant levels downwards, suggesting that if properly adhered to, they could save millions of lives.
Every year, exposure to air pollution is estimated to cause seven million premature deaths and results in the loss of millions more healthy years of life. In children, for example, 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. Improving air quality could also enhance climate change mitigation efforts and reducing emissions will have a knock-on effect of improving air quality.
WHO’s new guidelines recommend air quality levels for six pollutants which include particulate matter (PM); ozone (O₃); nitrogen dioxide (NO₂); sulphur dioxide (SO₂), and carbon monoxide (CO). It also has an impact on other damaging pollutants. In 2013, outdoor air pollution and particulate matter were classified as carcinogenic by WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
“Air pollution is a threat to health in all countries, but it hits people in low and middle-income countries the hardest,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general.
“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.”
In 2019, more than 90 per cent of the global population lived in areas where concentrations exceeded the 2005 WHO air quality guideline for long term exposure to PM2.5, one of the most harmful air pollutants.
A recent study found that long-term exposure to PM2.5 could have a significant influence on outcomes for people hospitalised with Covid-19.
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