WHO research shows that most people breathe in harmful air

Almost every person on the planet is exposed to air pollution that exceeds safe limits, the World Health Organization has warned, adding that it has launched a new air quality database.

Ninety-nine percent of people breathe air that sometimes or always exceeds harmful levels, the health agency said Monday, highlighting the urgent need to prevent pollution, mainly due to the burning of fossil fuels.

“There are still 7 million preventable deaths and countless preventable health losses due to air pollution,” said Maria Neyra, WHO director for environment, climate change and health. “Many investments are still drowning in polluted environments instead of clean, healthy air.”

In response to growing evidence of damage, the WHO has tightened its guidelines for the 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). They are the cause of human health.

People living in low- and middle-income countries are the most exposed to PM10 and PM2.5 pollution, but air pollution shortens life, even in rich areas, Neira said, causing an estimated 400,000 deaths a year in Europe alone.

In the eastern Mediterranean and Southeast Asia, the average PM10 level is six to eight times higher than the safe level, especially high readings have been recorded when fine desert dust complements man-made pollution.

Less than 1 percent of cities in low- and middle-income countries comply with WHO guidelines for PM10 and PM2.5 particles, which can penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream, potentially causing heart disease and brain disease.

“They can damage almost every organ in our body,” Nira said.

NO2 pollution patterns show a different pattern, with rich countries suffering almost as much as their poorer counterparts. NO2 is associated with respiratory diseases, especially asthma, which can lead to shortness of breath which may require hospitalization.

The WHO stressed that it does not want to create a league table that highlights the place with the dirtiest air after nearly 6,000 cities and towns in the world contributed to its database.

But data show that PM10 pollution was particularly bad in New Delhi, India, and Dhaka, Bangladesh, at an average annual level of 10 times the level recommended by the WHO. Mexico City stands for NO2 pollution, an average of eight times higher than the safe limit.

Drive to improve air quality with a larger fight against climate change, says WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanam Ghebreissas.

“The high cost of fossil fuels, energy security and the urgent need to address the combined health challenges of air pollution and climate change underscore the need to move faster towards a world less dependent on fossil fuels,” he added.

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