WHO Reports ‘Alarming’ Death Toll From Air Pollution

Air pollution obscures Bangkok, Thailand Feb. 4, 2005 (Photo by Carlos Pardo / Asian Development Bank)


GENEVA, Switzerland, May 2, 2018 (ENS) – Nine out of every 10 people worldwide breathe air containing high levels of pollutants and millions die as a result, according to new data from the World Health Organization, WHO, released today. Updated estimates reveal what WHO calls “an alarming death toll” of seven million people every year.

“Air pollution threatens us all, but the poorest and most marginalized people bear the brunt of the burden,” says WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, an Ethiopian public health expert. “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.”

WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, took office in July 2017. (Photo courtesy Wikipedia)

“If we don’t take urgent action on air pollution, we will never come close to achieving sustainable development,” he warned.

WHO estimates that seven million people die every year from exposure to fine particles in polluted air that penetrate deep into the lungs and cardiovascular system.

Breathing in fine particulate matter is a critical risk factor for noncommunicable diseases, WHO recognizes. The agency estimates exposure to polluted air causes an estimated 24 percent of all adult deaths from heart disease, 25 percent from stroke, 43 percent from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and 29 percent from lung cancer.

Cooking meals using charcoal as fuel can be deadly.  Indoor air pollution caused by cooking with charcoal is leading to severe health problems and affects climate change.

WHO has been monitoring household air pollution for more than a decade and, while the rate of access to clean fuels and technologies is increasing everywhere, around three billion people – more than 40 percent of the world’s population – still do not have access to clean cooking fuels and technologies in their homes.

Improvements are not even keeping pace with population growth in many parts of the world, particularly in subSaharan Africa, WHO reports.

Household air pollution from cooking with polluting fuels and technologies, the main source of household air pollution, caused an estimated 3.8 million deaths in 2016, while outdoor air pollution alone caused some 4.2 million deaths that same year.

James Okeyo cooks with charcoal and sticks on his three stone stove in Kisumu, Kenya, breathing polluted air all the while. Nov. 16, 2016. (Photo by Peter Kapuscinski / World Bank)

Major sources of air pollution from particulate matter include the inefficient use of energy by households, industry, the agriculture and transport sectors, and coal-fired power plants.

In some regions, sand and desert dust, waste burning and deforestation are additional sources of air pollution. Air quality can also be influenced by natural elements such as geographic, meteorological and seasonal factors.

More than 90 percent of air pollution-related deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, mainly in Asia and Africa, followed by the low- and middle-income countries of the Eastern Mediterranean region, Europe and the Americas.

WHO reports that more countries are measuring air pollution and taking actions to reduce it.

More than 4,300 cities in 108 countries are now included in WHO’s ambient air quality database, making this the world’s most comprehensive database on ambient air pollution. The database together with the summary of results, methodology used for compiling the data and WHO country groupings is online here.

Rahel Shigela, an artisan stove maker in northern Tanzania, makes clean cookstoves that use less wood or charcoal than traditional stoves, so cooks are exposed to less smoke and fumes. Aug. 25, 2015 (Photo courtesy DFID – UK Department for International Development)

Since 2016, more than 1,000 additional cities have been added to WHO’s database, which shows that more countries than ever before are measuring and taking action to reduce air pollution.

The database collects annual mean concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5). PM2.5 includes pollutants, such as sulfate, nitrates and black carbon, which pose the greatest risks to human health.

The concentration of an air pollutant is given in micrograms (one-millionth of a gram) per cubic meter of air or µg/m3.

WHO air quality recommendations call for countries to reduce their air pollution to annual mean values of 20 μg/m3 (for PM10) and 10 μg/m3 (for PM25).

“Many of the world’s megacities exceed WHO’s guideline levels for air quality by more than five times, representing a major risk to people’s health,” warns Dr. Maria Neira, director of WHO’s Department of Public Health, Social and Environmental Determinants of Health.

Still, she says WHO is seeing “an acceleration of political interest in this global public health challenge.”

Air pollution obscures Bangkok, Thailand Feb. 4, 2005 (Photo by Carlos Pardo / Asian Development Bank)

“The increase in cities recording air pollution data reflects a commitment to air quality assessment and monitoring,” said Dr. Neira. “Most of this increase has occurred in high-income countries, but we hope to see a similar scale-up of monitoring efforts worldwide.”

The highest ambient, or outdoor, air pollution levels are in the Eastern Mediterranean Region and in Southeast Asia, with annual mean levels often more than five times WHO limits, followed by low and middle-income cities in Africa and the Western Pacific.

While the latest data show ambient air pollution levels are still dangerously high in most parts of the world, WHO reports some positive progress.

Countries are taking measures to tackle and reduce air pollution from particulate matter. For example, in just two years, India’s Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana Scheme has provided some 37 million women living below the poverty line with free liquified petroleum gas connections to support them in changing to cleaner household energy use.

Mexico City has committed to cleaner vehicle standards, including a move to soot-free buses and a ban on private diesel cars by 2025.

But air pollution does not recognize borders. WHO says that improving air quality demands sustained and coordinated government action at all levels. Countries need to work together on solutions for sustainable transport, more efficient and renewable energy production and use and waste management.

Traffic in Bangkok, Thailand under hazy skies, May 28, 2016 (Photo by Kent MacElwee)

WHO works with many sectors including transport and energy, urban planning and rural development to support countries in addressing this problem.

“Political leaders at all levels of government, including city mayors, are now starting to pay attention and take action,” says Dr. Tedros. “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.”

This year WHO will convene the first Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health to bring governments and partners together in a global effort to improve air quality and combat climate change. The conference is planned for October 30 – November 1 at WHO headquarters in Geneva. Remote participation will be facilitated by webcasting and live-streaming of the sessions.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2018. All rights reserved.


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