WHO lowers air pollution limiting values to save millions of lives
According to the World Health Organization, the recommended limiting values for six polluting substances in the air have to come down. The new WHO Global Air Quality Guidelines (AQG) are far more stringent than those of the EU and aim to save millions of lives from air pollution.
Several recent studies have indicated that air pollution is far more harmful to human health than assumed. Since WHO’s last global update, there has been a marked increase of evidence that air pollution affects different aspects of health.
Save millions of lives
WHO has, therefore, adjusted almost all the AQGs levels downwards, warning that exceeding the new guideline levels is associated with significant health risks. At the same time, however, adhering to them could save millions of lives. Among the polluting substances are nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulfur dioxide, and particles.
According to the WHO’s estimations, exposure to air pollution causes seven million premature deaths a year worldwide. Air pollution causes heart and vascular and pulmonary diseases. Together with climate change, air pollution is one of the most critical environmental threats to human health, the organization says.
That is why the WHO sharpens the directives for air quality – for the first time since 2005. The new directions should push authorities worldwide to tackle air pollution.
In the Netherlands, the Dutch Lung Fund (Longfonds) takes the recommendations seriously. “We thought that air pollution in the Netherlands was under control, but those new limiting values show how bad the current quality of the air is,” says Lung Fund Director Michael Rutgers. Therefore, according to Rutgers, the new values have to become the new standard for the Netherlands.
Today, the old standards are still valid, and although they’re more ambitious than the legal ones, they’re not met.
Clean Air Agreement
Last year, several provinces and municipalities in the Netherlands signed the Clean Air Agreement (Schone Lucht Akkoord, SLA). The target was to comply with the old WHO standards for nitrogen dioxide and particles by 2030. The Agreement also included a 50% benefit for health.
In the meantime, more and more municipal health services (Gemeentelijke GezondheidsDiensten, GGD) call for more healthy air. “Air pollution remains one of the most important health issues in the Netherlands,” they say.
Global Air Quality Guidelines
The Dutch Lung Fund emphasizes that clean air is of vital importance for anybody. The organization shows that one out of five cases of asthma in children in the Netherlands is related to air pollution. Therefore, the emissions of the so-called classical polluters, like nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), carbon monoxide (CO), ozone (O3), and particles (PM), have to go down, the WHO concludes.
The health risks associated with particulate matter equal to or smaller than 10 and 2.5 microns (µm) in diameter (PM₁₀ and PM₂.₅, respectively) are of particular public health relevance. Both PM₂.₅ and PM₁₀ are capable of penetrating deep into the lungs, but PM₂.₅ can even enter the bloodstream, primarily resulting in cardiovascular and respiratory impacts and affecting other organs. PM is generated mainly by fuel combustion in different sectors, including transport, energy, households, industry, and agriculture.
New World Health Organization (WHO) Global Air Quality Guidelines (AQGs) provide clear evidence of air pollution’s damage to human health at even lower concentrations than previously understood. The guidelines recommend new air quality levels to protect the health of populations by reducing levels of key air pollutants, some of which also contribute to climate change.
Since WHO’s last 2005 global update, there has been a marked increase of evidence that shows how air pollution affects different aspects of health. For that reason, and after a systematic review of the accumulated evidence, the WHO has adjusted almost all the AQGs levels downwards, warning that exceeding the new air quality guideline levels is associated with significant health risks. At the same time, however, adhering to them could save millions of lives.
‘Evidence-based and practical tool’
Every year, exposure to air pollution is estimated to cause seven million premature deaths and result in the loss of millions more healthy years of life. In children, this could include reduced lung growth and function, respiratory infections, and aggravated asthma. All this puts the burden of disease attributable to air pollution on a par with other significant global health risks such as unhealthy diet and tobacco smoking.
“Air pollution is a threat to health in all countries, but it hits people in low- and middle-income countries the hardest,” said WHO Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “WHO’s new Air Quality Guidelines are an evidence-based and practical tool for improving the quality of the air on which all life depends. I urge all countries and all those fighting to protect our environment from putting them to use to reduce suffering and save lives.”
The WHO estimates that millions of deaths are caused by the effects of air pollution, mainly from noncommunicable diseases. Therefore, clean air should be a fundamental human right and a necessary condition for healthy and productive societies.