New data from the World Health Organization (WHO) shows that nine out of 10 people worldwide breathe air containing high levels of pollutants.
In a statement issued on Thursday, the WHO has said that the highest ambient air pollution levels have been reported from the Eastern Mediterranean and South-East Asian regions, with annual mean levels often exceeding WHO limits more than five times.
The two regions are followed by low- and middle-income cities in Africa and the Western Pacific. The WHO has also noted that there is a serious lack of air pollution data for Africa and some parts of the Western Pacific. The WHO database now contains fine particulate matter (PM) measurements for more than twice as many cities in Africa as in its previous versions. Still, data has so far been collected from only eight of the 47 countries in the region.
In general, ambient air pollution levels are lowest in high-income countries, particularly in Europe, the Americas, and the Western Pacific. Over the past six years, ambient air pollution levels have remained high, and approximately stable, with declining concentrations in some part of Europe and in the Americas.
Europe has the highest number of places reporting data on air pollution. In cities of high-income countries in Europe, air pollution has been shown to lower average life expectancy by anywhere between two and 24 months, depending on pollution levels.
“Air pollution threatens us all, but the poorest and most marginalized people bear the brunt of the burden,” Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general has been quoted as saying in the statement.
“It is unacceptable that over three billion people – most of them women and children – are still breathing deadly smoke every day from using polluting stoves and fuels in their homes. If we don’t take urgent action on air pollution, we will never come close to achieving sustainable development.”
Meanwhile, updated estimates suggest a death toll of seven million every year caused by ambient (outdoor) and household air pollution. These deaths are caused from exposure to fine particles in polluted air that penetrate deep into the lungs and cardiovascular system, causing diseases including stroke, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, and respiratory infections, including pneumonia.
Read more: Is Breathing Killing Us?
In 2016, ambient air pollution alone caused some 4.2 million deaths, while household air pollution from cooking with polluting fuels and technologies caused an estimated 3.8 million deaths in the same period.
However, the WHO has also noted that more countries are taking action against air pollution. More than 4,300 cities in 108 countries are now included in WHO’s ambient air quality database, making it the world’s most comprehensive database on ambient air pollution. Since 2016, more than 1,000 additional cities have been added to the database, which shows that more countries are taking action to reduce air pollution than ever before.
“The good news is that we are seeing more and more governments increasing commitments to monitor and reduce air pollution as well as more global action from the health sector and other sectors like transport, housing and energy,” says Dr Tedros.
Dr Maria Neira, the director of the Department of Public Health, Social and Environmental Determinants of Health at WHO, adds, “The increase in cities recording air pollution data reflects a commitment to air quality assessment and monitoring. Most of this increase has occurred in high-income countries, but we hope to see a similar scale-up of monitoring efforts worldwide.”