Air pollution kills more than 500,000 yearly

The World Health Organization issued new guidelines for improving global air quality, which it says could save many of the lives that are lost each year to air pollution, one of the biggest environmental threats to human health, alongside climate change.

WHO estimates that around 7 million premature deaths every year are due to the effects of air pollution, with more than 500,000 of those deaths occurring in the WHO European Region. Concerted action to reduce air pollution would save lives and reduce the burden of disease.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said inhaling dirty air increases the risk of pneumonia, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, as well as noncommunicable ailments including heart disease, stroke and cancers.

“Air pollution is a health threat in all countries but especially for vulnerable groups in low- and middle-income countries with poor air quality due to urbanization and rapid economic development and air pollution in the home caused by cooking, heating and lighting,” Tedros said.

Since the WHO’s last global update in 2005, a new body of evidence has emerged showing that humans suffer damage to their health at lower concentrations of air pollution than previously believed.

Consequently, the WHO recommends lower air quality levels for five key pollutants, including nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide.

Maria Neira, director of the WHO’s department of environment, climate change and health, says a changeover to cleaner energy will improve people’s health and mitigate global warming.

“Moving to renewable and clean sources of energy because [of] this will have a very positive impact on reducing the greenhouse gases emission and tackling the causes of climate change and reducing air pollution,” she said. “Both are critical pillars of our health.”

Besides improving health and saving lives, reducing air pollution could also have enormous economic benefits.

The World Bank estimates the global cost associated with health damage from ambient air pollution stands at $5.7 trillion a year.

Since the mid-1980s, the WHO European Centre for Environment and Health in Bonn, Germany, has coordinated the development of a series of WHO air quality guidelines. They provide guideline levels for several air pollutants, which if achieved, would result in a significant reduction in the risk to health.

The WHO Global Air Quality Guidelines cover commonly monitored pollutants, where evidence on health effects from exposure has advanced the most in the past 15 years. These so-called classical pollutants are particulate matter (PM₁₀ and PM₂.₅), ozone (O₃), nitrogen dioxide (NO₂), sulfur dioxide (SO₂) and carbon monoxide (CO).

Improving air quality can enhance climate change mitigation, and climate change mitigation efforts can, in turn, improve air quality, delivering immediate and massive health benefits.

As countries are preparing for the next round of negotiations at the United Nations Climate Change Conference due to take place this November in Glasgow, United Kingdom, these guidelines will strengthen the health argument that addressing air pollution goes hand in hand with the global fight against climate change.

By promoting environmental sustainability within economic recovery, we can make large steps towards improving air quality, mitigating climate change and saving lives.

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