The World Health Organisation (WHO) on Wednesday (September 22) issued its first air quality guidelines since 2005 aimed at reducing deaths from key pollutants that cause cardiovascular and respiratory diseases by moving to clean energy.
The United Nations agency, in advice to its 194 member states, slashed the recommended maximum levels for several pollutants, including particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide, both of which are found in fossil fuel emissions.
“Since the update in 2005, a substantial new body of evidence has accumulated, further demonstrating the degree to which air pollution affects all parts of the body from the brain to a growing baby in a mother’s womb at even lower concentrations than previously observed”, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news conference.
The WHO cited “clear evidence” of the damage inflicted by air pollution on human health “at even lower concentrations than previously understood”.
“That’s why these new guidelines include lower recommended levels for pollutants, including particulate matter, nitrogen of dioxide, sulphur dioxide and ozone”, Tedros added.
Long-term exposure to even lower concentrations of ambient and household air pollution can cause diseases including lung cancer, heart disease, and stroke, resulting in an estimated 7 million premature deaths each year, according to the WHO.
Tedros urged governments to engage all economic sectors in reducing emissions and addressing climate change, noting that the guidelines came at an “important time” ahead of the COP26 climate change conference set to open in Glasgow on Oct 31.
People living in low- and middle-income countries are hit the hardest due to urbanisation and economic development heavily reliant on burning fossil fuels, it said.
Reducing exposure to particulate matter(PM) – capable of penetrating deep into the lungs and entering the bloodstream – is a priority, the WHO said. These are primarily generated by fuel combustion in sectors including transport, energy, households, industry, and from agriculture.
Under the new guidelines, WHO halved the recommended limit for average annual PM2.5 level from 10 micrograms per cubic meter to 5. It also lowered the recommended limit for PM10 from 20 micrograms to 15.
“If we put into place the levels recommended by the new guidelines and if we reduce those levels in particular of the particulate matter, PM 2.5 and that we re-adjust to what is recommended, then we could save 80% of those lives that unfortunately are being lost every year”, María Neira, WHO director of environment, climate change and health said.