Almost every person on the planet is exposed to air pollution that exceeds safe limits, the World Health Organization has warned as it launched a new air quality database.
Ninety-nine percent of people were breathing air that sometimes or always exceeded harmful levels, the health body said on Monday, highlighting the urgent need to reduce pollution caused primarily by the burning of fossil fuels .
“It is unacceptable to still have 7 million avoidable deaths and countless years of preventable lost good health due to air pollution,” said Maria Neira, Director of Environment, Climate Change and health at WHO. “Too much investment is still being invested in a polluted environment rather than clean, healthy air.”
The WHO has tightened its guidelines for healthy levels of the most dangerous pollutants, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and fine particles with a diameter of less than 10 microns (PM10) or 2.5 microns (PM2.5) , in response to growing evidence of the damage they cause to human health.
People living in low- and middle-income countries have been most exposed to PM10 and PM2.5 pollutants, but air pollution is shortening life even in wealthier regions, Neira said, adding that she caused around 400,000 deaths a year in Europe alone.
In the Eastern Mediterranean region and Southeast Asia, average PM10 levels are six to eight times above safe levels, with particularly high readings recorded when fine desert dust supplements man-made pollution. .
Less than 1% of cities in low- and middle-income countries meet WHO guidelines for PM10 and PM2.5 particles, which can penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream, potentially causing heart disease and cerebral.
“They can damage almost every organ in our body,” Neira said.
NO2 pollution patterns show a different pattern, with wealthier countries suffering almost as much as their poorer counterparts. NO2 is associated with respiratory diseases, particularly asthma, resulting in breathing problems that may require hospitalization.
The WHO insisted it did not want to create a ranking table highlighting the place with the dirtiest air after around 6,000 cities around the world contributed to its database.
But the data shows that New Delhi in India and Dhaka in Bangladesh had particularly severe PM10 pollution, with average annual levels more than 10 times higher than WHO recommended levels. Mexico City stood out for NO2 pollution, with an average eight times higher than the safe limit.
The drive to improve air quality is part of the broader fight against climate change, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
“High fossil fuel prices, energy security and the urgency to address the twin health challenges of air pollution and climate change underscore the pressing need to move faster towards a world much less dependent on fossil fuels. “, he added.