UN health agency sets higher, tougher bar for air quality
GENEVA — Air pollution has a greater impact on human health than previously believed, according to the World Health Organization. It set a new standard in its first update of its guidelines for air quality in 15 year.
The U.N. Health Agency released revised guidelines as climate change is a major topic at the U.N. General Assembly. China’s President Xi Jinping declared Tuesday that China will no more fund coal-fired power plants, which produce many of the pollutants listed in the guidelines.
Since the last update to the WHO recommendations, science and better monitoring have improved the global picture of the health effects of six of the most harmful air pollutants. The agency claims that 90% people live in areas containing at least one of six harmful types of air pollutants.
” “Air quality is essential for human life,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, said to reporters. Yet, 7 million people die each year from air pollution. Almost everyone around the world is exposed to unhealthy levels of air pollution.”
Air pollution is now comparable to other global health risks like unhealthy diets and smoking tobacco, WHO said. Dorota Jarosinska (WHO Europe program manager for living, working and environmental environments), stated that air pollution is the “single greatest environmental threat to human life.”
The guidelines, which aren’t legally binding, modify the recommended concentrations of six pollutants that have been shown to have adverse effects on health. These include two types of particulate matter, PM 2.5 and PM 10,, as well as ozone and nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and sulfur dioxide.
The guidelines could also be used to communicate to the public information about lifestyle and business decisions, such as driving cars and trucks, disposing garbage, and working in factories or agriculture.
WHO states that the major human-caused sources of air pollution are not limited to one location. They include transportation and energy sectors as well as home cooking and heating. It advised people to change their lifestyles, including not driving a car inefficiently and not using plastics that could be incinerated. They should also walk, bike or use public transport to get to work.
” We hope that the stricter standards will bring attention to how important clean air is for ecosystem and human health,” Jessica Seddon from the World Resources Institute said. The difficulty lies in making the WHO guidelines relevant for everyday people .”
While wealthy countries like North America, Europe and Asia have made significant progress in improving air quality, WHO estimates that more than 90% the world’s population is exposed to PM2.5 concentrations higher than those recommended in its latest guidelines, 2006..
These particles can penetrate the lungs deep and reach the bloodstream. This can have both cardiovascular and respiratory consequences. Experts say that air pollution has been linked with heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Recent evidence also suggests negative effects on mental health and cognitive development in children. The new guidelines have lowered or revised the recommended levels of air pollution for almost all six particles on both a daily basis and an annual basis. They have lowered the PM2.5 recommendation to 5 micrograms per square meter on an annual basis, from 10.
” This is a significant change,” stated Susan Anenberg, an associate professor of environmental health and occupational health at George Washington University. It will be very difficult to meet the …. guidelines. There are very few people right now with exposures that are this low .”
. The 2005 guidelines, which were published one year later, prompted many countries and organizations to take action. The evidence about the adverse effects of air pollution on human health has increased since then thanks to improved pollution measurement systems and exposure assessment. This led to the updating.
The revisions also highlight an environmental concern that is similar to widespread concerns about global warming, and the effects of burning fossil fuels. Anenberg stated that countries must meet the new WHO guidelines in order to comply with them. They must stop using fossil fuels. What the world does about climate change over the next few weeks will have major consequences on our ability to follow a guideline such as .”
A key U.N. summit on climate change is scheduled to take place in Glasgow (Scotland) in six weeks.
While some developed and developing countries have established standards for air quality, a U.N. environment program report earlier this month revealed that a third of all countries do not have any legally mandated standards regarding outdoor air quality. Many of these countries are located in Africa and the Western Pacific.
Over recent 20years, air quality has improved where policies to reduce pollutant emissions are in place, such as Europe, the United States, and Canada, according to Vincent-Henri Peuch (director of the European Union’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service).
China also has seen improvement. Peuch stated that air quality has declined in many other countries around the globe, particularly in low-income nations.
There is still some promise. Experts point out improvements in the way old cars are retired and replaced with newer models that emit less carbon dioxide or use batteries.
But WHO was clear in its overall message.
” The unenviable task for policymakers is to respond in such a way as to minimize the proven harms of health, as stated by WHO, but with policies which are proportionate and cost-effective, and, crucially, that deliver benefits equitably throughout the country and population,” said Alastair Lewis, a University of York professor and National Center for Atmospheric Science.
___ This version corrects the date when WHO published its earlier air quality guidelines for 2005,, not 2015..
Costley reported from Washington.