The World Health Organization (WHO) has lowered its recommended limit values for air pollution and is calling on states to do more against polluted air. According to a lot of evidence from the past few years, polluted air is much more harmful to human health than previously thought, according to the organization. With the current adjustment, the WHO has tightened the maximum exposure that is still acceptable for health for the first time in 16 years.
Clean air is a “human right”
“Air pollution is a health threat in all countries,” says Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director General. The organization’s guidelines are not legally binding, but countries can use them to plan their actions. The WHO stated that dirty air often affects the most vulnerable and that clean air should be a “basic human right”.
The warnings of the WHO refer mainly to the pollutants fine dust (PM), ozone (O₃), nitrogen dioxide (NO₂), sulfur dioxide (SO₂) and carbon monoxide (CO). The pollution with nitrogen dioxide, which comes mainly from diesel cars, should now be only ten micrograms per cubic meter instead of the previous 40. The EU currently allows 40. For fine dust with a particle size of 2.5 micrometers, the EU guideline values are 25 micrograms per cubic meter of air. The World Health Organization previously recommended only ten micrograms, now it is only five.
Seven million deaths every year
In 2019, according to the WHO, more than 90 percent of the world’s population lived in areas where concentrations of fine dust exceeded the WHO air quality guide value from 2005. In countries where air quality has been greatly improved through political measures, air pollution has often decreased significantly. According to the WHO, exposure to air pollution causes an estimated seven million premature deaths each year and leads to the loss of millions more healthy years of life.
In children, pollution could mean decreased growth and impaired function of the lungs, respiratory infections, and worsening of asthma, among other things. In adults, heart disease and stroke are the most common causes of premature deaths from outdoor air pollution. There is also evidence of other effects such as diabetes and neurodegenerative diseases. Air pollution is as big a health risk as an unhealthy diet and smoking.
WHO sets interim targets for air quality
With the new guideline, the WHO wants to ensure that all countries achieve the recommended air quality values. WHO recognizes that this will be a difficult task for many countries and regions. It has therefore proposed interim targets to gradually improve air quality and thus provide gradual but significant health benefits for the population.