Air Pollution Is Still Getting Worse For Over Half Of The World's Population

Thick summer smog sets over downtown Shangai, an economic hub of China with high levels of air pollution. atiger/Shutterstock

Air pollution is getting worse for over half of the world's population, according to new research by the University of Exeter in the UK. 

The vast majority of the world’s population continues to be exposed to levels of air pollution substantially above guidelines set by the World Health Organization. Although some countries have recently reduced air pollution levels thanks to active policy change, the global picture was largely outweighed by growing levels of fine particulate matter in the air in many low- and middle-income countries, most notably nations in Central and South-Eastern Asia.

"While long-term policies to reduce air pollution have been shown to be effective in many regions, notably in Europe and the United States, there are still regions that have dangerously high levels of air pollution, some as much as five times greater than World Health Organization guidelines, and in some countries air pollution is still increasing,” Professor Gavin Shaddick, study author and chair of Data Science & Statistics at the University of Exeter, said in a statement.

Reported in the journal Climate and Atmospheric Science, the new study used ground monitoring data, with information from satellite retrievals of aerosol optical depth, chemical transport models, and other sources. Their findings highlighted levels of fine particulate matter in ambient outdoor air to gauge yearly air quality profiles for individual countries and globally between 2010 and 2016. 

Fine particulate matter is produced by household energy use, industry, the agriculture and transport sectors, and coal-fired power plants. In some regions of the world, sand and desert dust, waste burning, and deforestation also contribute. Inhaling too much particulate pollution can have a shockingly diverse range of health impacts, from cardiovascular diseases to severe mental health problems. By the latest estimates, air pollution is responsible for around 9 million premature deaths worldwide.  

Meanwhile, a separate report has found that the overwhelming majority of people living in five countries across the world support stricter air quality regulations.

The survey by the Clean Air Fund asked a large group of people living in Great Britain, India, Nigeria, Poland, and Bulgaria about their opinion of air pollution and air quality regulations. They found that at least two-thirds of citizens in all surveyed countries support stricter regulation to tackle air pollution, while over 90 percent of people surveyed in India and Nigeria said they want improved air quality. 

In light of their findings, the Clean Air Fund argues that new environmental measures should be an integral part of the economic recovery packages that many governments aim to roll out following the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

“There is clear public demand for governments around the world to act on clean air – and no excuse not to. As lockdowns are eased and economies restarted, people are clear that they do not want a return to toxic air. That would simply replace one health crisis with another,” Jane Burston, executive director of the Clean Air Fund, said in a statement.

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