New WHO Global Air Quality Guidelines aim to save millions of lives from air pollution

Copenhagen/Geneva, 22 September 2021 (WHO) – New World Health Organization (WHO) Global Air Quality Guidelines (AQGs) provide clear evidence of the damage air pollution inflicts on human health, at even lower concentrations than previously understood. 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.

Since WHO’s last 2005 global update, there has been a marked increase of evidence that shows how air pollution affects different aspects of health. For that reason, and after a systematic review of the accumulated evidence, WHO has adjusted almost all the AQGs levels downwards, warning that exceeding the new air quality guideline levels is associated with significant risks to health. At the same time, however, adhering to them could save millions of lives.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, 9 out of 10 people live in cities that already exceeded the 2005 WHO Air Quality Guidelines, and data released by WHO in 2018 show that more than 320,000 deaths each year are attributable to exposure to atmospheric pollutants. Efforts are being made to reduce emissions in the region, but more than 90 million people still rely on polluting fuels for cooking and heating.

Globally, exposure to air pollution is estimated to cause 7 million premature deaths each year and result in the loss of millions more healthy years of life. In children, this could include 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.

New WHO Guidelines

The new guidelines recommend air quality levels for 6 pollutants, where evidence has advanced the most on health effects from exposure. When action is taken on these so-called classical pollutants – particulate matter (PM), ozone (O₃), nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) sulfur dioxide (SO₂) and carbon monoxide (CO), it also has an impact on other damaging pollutants.

The guidelines also 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.”

The road to achieving recommended air quality guideline levels

The goal of the guideline is for all countries to achieve recommended air quality levels. Conscious that this will be a difficult task for many countries and regions struggling with high air pollution levels, WHO has proposed interim targets to facilitate stepwise improvement in air quality and thus gradual, but meaningful, health benefits for the population.

Actions to combat air pollution include strengthening Member State capacity to monitor air quality and enhance epidemiological surveillance and accelerating public policies to mitigate air pollution. These include sustainable and affordable public transportation services, reducing reliance on fossil fuels for energy production, and ensuring clean energy alternatives for cooking and heating.

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