More Than 90% Of World's Population Breathing Unsafe Air, Says WHO

China tops the list of number of deaths directly due to air pollution. Testing/Shutterstock.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the state of the world’s air pollution and the danger it poses to the global population a “public health emergency” in a new report announced today.  

92 percent of the world’s population live in places that don’t meet the WHO’s safe air quality levels, resulting in up to 6 million deaths a year directly from air pollution.  

“To date, air pollution – both ambient (outdoor) and household (indoor) – is the biggest environmental risk to health, carrying responsibility for about one in every nine deaths annually,” Dr Maria Neira, head of the WHO's department of public health and environment, writes in the report.

An international team, led by the University of Bath, UK, worked with the WHO to gather and analyze data from 3,000 locations, both urban and rural, worldwide. They used pollution monitors on the ground and in the air as well as satellite measurements to produce the most detailed air quality model and air pollution-related health data ever recorded.  

This is also the first time the WHO has broken down the data to a country by country level, revealing the worst offenders.  

It’s not surprising after last year’s widely-reported news of Shenyang’s air pollution reaching 50 times the recommended safety limit that China tops what has to be one of the least desirable leagues in existence. An estimated 1 million people died from breathing dirty air there in 2012.

India followed with approximately 600,000 deaths and Russia came in third with 140,000. The US came in at ninth out of the 184 countries listed, with the UK coming in 25th, with 16,000 deaths. The top 10 reads as follows:

  1. 1. China - 1,032,833
  2. 2. India - 621,138
  3. 3. Russia - 140,851
  4. 4. Indonesia - 61,792
  5. 5. Pakistan - 59,241
  6. 6. Ukraine - 54,507
  7. 7. Nigeria - 46,750
  8. 8. Egypt - 43,531
  9. 9. USA - 38,043
  10. 10. Bangladesh - 37,449

 This data makes it harder for countries to ignore their responsibilities, according to Dr Neira, who told the Guardian: “Countries are confronted with the reality of better data. Now we have the figures of how many citizens are dying from air pollution... Now there are no excuses for not taking action.”

Three million deaths a year are linked to outdoor pollution through transport fumes, burning of waste and household fuel, coal-fired power plants, and industrial activities. But the report warns that indoor pollution can be just as harmful, especially in poorer developing countries who still burn charcoal in the home.

According to the report, “Nearly 90% of air-pollution-related deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, with nearly 2 out of 3 occurring in WHO’s South-East Asia and Western Pacific regions.”

"Air pollution continues take a toll on the health of the most vulnerable populations – women, children and the older adults," Dr Flavia Bustreo, assistant director-general at WHO, said in the statement.

Dr Neira suggests that solutions do exist on both a small and large scale, pointing towards sustainable transport, solid waste management, and clean household fuels as well as renewable energy and industrial emission reductions.

“The role of the health sector is crucial, and there is a need to engage with other sectors to maximize the co-benefits of health, climate, environment, social and development,” the report concludes. “Saving people’s lives is the overarching aim to implement policies aiming at tackling air pollution in the health, transport, energy, and urban development sectors."

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