An astonishing 99 per cent of the world population breathes polluted air, risking their life and threatening their health, according to the World Health organisation.
Pointing out that fossil fuels are responsible for most of the harmful emissions that are linked to acute and chronic sickness, the WHO called for tangible steps to curb their use. The WHOin its data said that though over 6000 cities in 117 countries are now monitoring air quality, the people living there are still breathing unhealthy levels of fine particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide. The situation is worse in low and middle-income countries, where the exposure is at its heights.
CONCENTRATIONS OF NITROGEN DIOXIDE
Released in the lead-up to World Health Day, which this year celebrates the theme “Our planet, our health”, the 2022 update of the World Health Organization’s air quality database introduces, for the first time, ground measurements of annual mean concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a common urban pollutant and precursor of particulate matter and ozone. It also includes measurements of particulate matter with diameters equal or smaller than 10 μm (PM10) or 2.5 μm (PM2.5). Both groups of pollutants originate mainly from human activities related to fossil fuel combustion.
Air pollution, even low levels of many air pollutants, cause significant health issues.
Particulate matter, especially PM2.5, is capable of penetrating deep into the lungs and entering the bloodstream, causing cardiovascular, cerebrovascular (stroke) and respiratory impacts. There is emerging evidence that particulate matter impacts other organs and causes other diseases as well.
NO2 is associated with respiratory diseases, particularly asthma, leading to respiratory symptoms (such as coughing, wheezing or difficulty breathing), hospital admissions and visits to emergency rooms.
Meanwhile, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, “current energy concerns highlight the importance of speeding up the transition to cleaner, healthier energy systems,”
“High fossil fuel prices, energy security, and the urgency of addressing the twin health challenges of air pollution and climate change, underscore the pressing need to move faster towards a world that is much less dependent on fossil fuels,” he added.
STEPS TO IMPROVE AIR QUALITY AND HEALTH
- Adopt or revise and implement national air quality standards according to the latest WHO Air Quality Guidelines
- Monitor air quality and identify sources of air pollution
- Support the transition to exclusive use of clean household energy for cooking, heating and lighting
- Build safe and affordable public transport systems and pedestrian- and cycle-friendly networks
- Implement stricter vehicle emissions and efficiency standards; and enforce mandatory inspection and maintenance for vehicle
- Invest in energy-efficient housing and power generation
- Improve industry and municipal waste management
- Reduce agricultural waste incineration, forest fires and certain agro-forestry activities (e.g. charcoal production)
- Include air pollution in curricula for health professionals and providing tools for the health sector to engage.
IMPROVEMENT IN MONITORING NEEDED
People living in lower and middle-income countries are the most exposed to air pollution. They are also the least covered in terms of air quality measurement — but the situation is improving.
Europe and, to some extent, North America, remain the regions with the most comprehensive data on air quality. In many low- and middle-income countries, while PM2.5 measurements are still not available, they have seen large improvements for measurements between the last database update in 2018 and this one, with an additional 1500 human settlements in these countries monitoring air quality.