HEALTH: WHO Warns 99% of people on earth are breathing unhealthy air.

We often take the air we breathe for grant­ed, but new data reveals that the pol­lu­tants behind mil­lions of pre­ventable deaths now taint the air most of us breathe at unhealthy levels.

“Air pol­lu­tion has an impact at a much low­er lev­el than pre­vi­ous­ly thought,” says World Health Orga­ni­za­tion tech­ni­cal offi­cer Sophie Gumy, in ref­er­ence to WHO’s recent­ly updat­ed air qual­i­ty guidelines.

Based on an analy­sis of air pol­lu­tion data cov­er­ing more than 6,000 cities in 117 coun­tries, WHO says 99 per­cent of the world’s pop­u­la­tion now breathes air that does not meet the updat­ed safe­ty guide­lines. This cov­ers 80 per­cent of the world’s urban areas.

With each breath, invis­i­ble nitro­gen diox­ide (NO2) from vehi­cles, con­struc­tion equip­ment, indus­tri­al boil­ers, pow­er plants, and so on, flows deep into our lungs. There, it can irri­tate our del­i­cate air­way tis­sues, caus­ing increas­ing inflam­ma­tion, trig­ger­ing aller­gies, and asth­ma and reduc­ing lung function.

NO2 also great­ly increas­es the risk of devel­op­ing child­hood asth­ma child­hood asth­ma. It has also been asso­ci­at­ed with low­er weight in new­borns, as well as car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease, even with short term exposure.

We also inhale fine par­tic­u­late mat­ter (PM) car­ried by the air, made up of many dif­fer­ent sub­stances includ­ing nat­ur­al desert dust as well as all sorts of pol­lu­tants from microplas­tics, cook­ing fires, indus­try, agri­cul­tur­al activ­i­ties, burn­ing fos­sil fuels, and wild­fires. WHO is mon­i­tor­ing par­tic­u­late mat­ter with diam­e­ters equal or small­er than 10 μm (PM10) or 2.5 μm (PM2.5).

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

While devel­op­ing nations still strug­gle with par­tic­u­late mat­ter to a greater extent than wealthy nations – with the high­est record­ed lev­els of PM10 in India and PM2.5 in Chi­na – that dif­fer­ence is not so clear when it comes to NO2.

Glob­al­ly, only 23 per­cent of peo­ple across the 4,000 cities mea­sured breathe NO2 lev­els that are with­in WHO’s safe­ty guide­lines, with the high­est con­cen­tra­tions found in the Mediterranean.

Cli­mate change-fueled wild­fires con­tributed to the US expe­ri­enc­ing a spike in PM2.5 air pol­lu­tion com­pared to 2020, the IQAir team found. Low­er-income com­mu­ni­ties in the US typ­i­cal­ly suf­fered the most air pol­lu­tion, and the US city with the worst pol­lu­tion was Los Angeles.

The good news is that many cities in Chi­na showed improve­ment in air qual­i­ty last year, but they still have a long way to go. Devel­op­ing coun­tries face addi­tion­al chal­lenges around cook­ing and heat­ing fires, as well as industry.

“It is a shock­ing fact that no major city or coun­try is pro­vid­ing safe and healthy air to their cit­i­zens accord­ing to the lat­est World Health Orga­ni­za­tion air qual­i­ty guide­line,” says Frank Hammes, CEO of IQAir.

“This report under­scores just how much work remains to be done to ensure that every­one has safe, clean and healthy air to breathe. The time for action is now.”

Both reports indi­cate almost all of us face an increased risk of heart dis­ease, stroke, lung dis­ease, and can­cer because of these pol­lu­tants. WHO esti­mates out­door pol­lu­tion was respon­si­ble for around 4.2 mil­lion pre­ma­ture deaths in 2016, from PM2.5 alone.

WHO notes fos­sil fuels pro­duce the most harm­ful emis­sions linked to both acute and chron­ic sick­ness, as well as exac­er­bat­ing con­di­tions that trig­ger greater nat­ur­al pol­lu­tants like bush­fires and dust storms. The orga­ni­za­tion urges for wide­spread and sys­temic reduc­tions in their use.

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