Officially, 99 percent of the global population is breathing dirty air that’s potentially threatening their health, according to a damning new update from the World Health Organization (WHO) released today.
The latest statistics come from the 2022 update of the WHO’s air quality database. It’s the most extensive look at air quality around the world yet, gathering data on fine particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the air from over 6,000 cities in 117 countries.
The worst air quality can be found in low and middle-income countries where just 1 percent of the cities meet the WHO’s Air Quality Guidelines. Air in 17 percent of high-income countries falls below the WHO recommended thresholds for PM10 and PM2.5, but almost all cities across the world have troublesome levels of nitrogen dioxide in their air.
Both NO2 and particulate matter are hallmarks of polluted air, primarily produced by the burning of fossil fuels.
Particulate matter, especially the smaller molecules known as PM2.5, is capable of penetrating deep into the lungs and entering the bloodstream, causing damage to the cardiovascular system, the respiratory tract, the brain, and other organs where it causes disease and damage. NO2 comes from the emissions from cars, trucks and buses, power plants, and industry. This pollutant is primarily associated with respiratory diseases, especially asthma.
A constant stream of new studies shows how damaging air pollution can be, impacting everything from increasing the risk of autism and dementia to premature births. Just last year, the WHO revised its guidelines on safe air pollution levels, saying the health risks are greater than previously thought.
As a result of this dramatic risk to health, the WHO estimates air pollution is responsible for around 4.2 million deaths every single year.
The WHO report also puts forward a few recommendations to improve the world’s air quality. Firstly, they want all regions to adopt or revise and implement national air quality standards according to the latest WHO Air Quality Guidelines. They also want more efforts to be made with air quality monitoring, especially in low and middle-income countries where there’s not enough data.
Of course, the world also needs to urgently cut its addiction to fossil fuels, not just because of the threat it poses to our environment, but also to our health.
Speaking about this latest update, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, said this latest insight into the world’s polluted air problem is just another good reason why the planet needs to kick out fossil fuels and rapidly transition to renewable energy.
“Current energy concerns highlight the importance of speeding up the transition to cleaner, healthier energy systems,” Dr Tedros said in a statement. “High fossil fuel prices, energy security, and the urgency of addressing the twin health challenges of air pollution and climate change, underscore the pressing need to move faster towards a world that is much less dependent on fossil fuels.”
“After surviving a pandemic, it is unacceptable to still have 7 million preventable deaths and countless preventable lost years of good health due to air pollution," added Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director, Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health. "That’s what we’re saying when we look at the mountain of air pollution data, evidence, and solutions available. Yet too many investments are still being sunk into a polluted environment rather than in clean, healthy air."