Environment

Air pollution causing 7 million premature deaths annually prompting WHO to strengthen air quality guidelines

Current air pollution levels have prompted the World Health Organization to update and strengthen air quality guidelines for the first time in 15 years.

The World Health Organization toughened its air quality guidelines adding that air pollution is one of the greatest environmental threats to human health causing seven million untimely deaths annually.

The UN body revealed that more proof had became known pointing that at lower concentrations; air pollution affected the health of people than previously thought.

There has been growing evidence that air pollution affects different aspects of health and after a systematic review, WHO has adjusted almost all the Air Quality Guidelines levels downwards. 

The body warned that exceeding the new AQG levels will result to significant health risks whilst adhering to them could save millions of lives.

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Exposure to air pollution is estimated to cause 7 million premature deaths annually and the loss of millions more healthy years of life. 

In children, it leads to 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.

The guidelines recommend new air quality levels to protect the health of populations, by reducing levels of key air pollutants, some of which also contribute to climate change.

The new guidelines recommend air quality levels for six classical pollutants – particulate matter (PM), ozone (O₃), nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) sulphur dioxide (SO₂), and carbon monoxide (CO).

The health risks associated with particulate matter equal to or smaller than 10 and 2.5 microns (µm) in diameter (PM₁₀ and PM₂.₅, respectively) are of particular public health relevance. 

Both PM₂.₅ and PM₁₀ are capable of penetrating deep into the lungs but PM₂.₅ can even enter the bloodstream, primarily resulting in cardiovascular and respiratory impacts, and also affecting other organs. 

PM is primarily generated by fuel combustion in different sectors, including transport, energy, households, industry, and agriculture. In 2013, outdoor air pollution and particulate matter were classified as carcinogenic by WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

The aim of the guidelines is to protect people from the undesirable effects of air pollution, also governments use the guidelines as a reference for lawfully binding standards.

Improving air quality can enhance climate change mitigation efforts while reducing emissions will in turn improve air quality. By striving to achieve these guideline levels, countries will be both protecting health as well as mitigating global climate change.

The guidelines highlight good practices for the management of certain types of particulate matter (for example, black carbon/elemental carbon, ultrafine particles, particles originating from sand and dust storms) for which there is currently insufficient quantitative evidence to set air quality guideline levels. They are applicable to both outdoor and indoor environments globally and cover all settings.

“Air pollution is a threat to health in all countries, but it hits people in low- and middle-income countries the hardest,” said WHO Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “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.”

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