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WHO: 9 out of 10 people worldwide breathe polluted air

2 May 2018

New data from the World Health Organization (WHO) shows that 90% of people in the world live in areas where particle pollution exceeds the WHO air quality guidelines, and the estimated death toll due to ambient (outdoor) and household air pollution remains high.

WHO estimates that around 7 million people die every year from exposure to fine particles in polluted air that penetrate deep into the lungs and cardiovascular system, causing diseases including stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases and respiratory infections, including pneumonia.

Ambient air pollution caused some 4.2 million deaths in 2016, while household air pollution from cooking with polluting fuels and technologies caused an estimated 3.8 million deaths in the same period. Around 3 billion people—more than 40% of the world’s population—still do not have access to clean cooking fuels and technologies in their homes, the main source of household air pollution.

The highest ambient air pollution levels are in the Eastern Mediterranean Region and in South-East Asia—with annual mean levels often exceeding more than 5 times WHO limits—followed by low and middle-income cities in Africa and the Western Pacific. Over the past 6 years, ambient air pollution levels have remained high and approximately stable, with declining concentrations in some part of Europe and in the Americas.

WHO recognizes that air pollution is a critical risk factor for noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), causing an estimated one-quarter (24%) of all adult deaths from heart disease, 25% from stroke, 43% from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and 29% from lung cancer.

The 2017 version of the WHO’s ambient air quality database includes more than 4300 cities in 108 countries, making this the world’s most comprehensive database on ambient air pollution. Since 2016, more than 1000 additional cities have been added to the database. The database collects annual mean concentrations of particulate matter, including PM10 and PM2.5. PM2.5 includes pollutants, such as sulfate, nitrates and black carbon, which pose the greatest risks to human health. The air quality values recommended by the WHO are 20 μg/m3 for PM10 and 10 μg/m3 for PM2.5.

“Many of the world’s megacities exceed WHO’s guideline levels for air quality by more than 5 times, representing a major risk to people’s health,” says Dr Maria Neira, Director of the Department of Public Health, Social and Environmental Determinants of Health, at WHO. “We are seeing an acceleration of political interest in this global public health challenge. The increase in cities recording air pollution data reflects a commitment to air quality assessment and monitoring. Most of this increase has occurred in high-income countries, but we hope to see a similar scale-up of monitoring efforts worldwide.”

Major sources of air pollution from particulate matter include the inefficient use of energy by households, industry, the agriculture and transport sectors, and coal-fired power plants. In some regions, sand and desert dust, waste burning and deforestation are additional sources of air pollution. Air quality can also be influenced by natural elements such as geographic, meteorological and seasonal factors.

This year, the WHO will convene its first Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health, 30 October – 1 November 2018, at WHO Headquarters in Geneva.

Source: WHO