The World Health Organization (WHO) announced that smaller amounts of air pollution are thought to be more damaging to human health than previously understood and updated their air quality guidelines for the first time since 2005, meaning more people worldwide live in areas with dangerous levels of contamination.
Following the new guidelines, which lower the threshold of acceptable levels of six common and dangerous air pollutants, “could save millions of lives,” according to the WHO report.
The agency recommends decreasing amounts of ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and most importantly, two kinds of particulate matter, a contaminant created by fuel combustion which is capable of penetrating both the bloodstream and lungs.
The report decreased the suggested acceptable amount of PM2 to 5 micrograms per cubic meter, half of what was recommended in 2005, and the amount of PM10 from 20 to 15 micrograms per cubic meter, Reuters reports.
The organization said that when action is taken to reduce the amount of these specific pollutants, it has a similar effect on other contaminants, and is also beneficial to the environment.
An estimated 7 million premature deaths are caused worldwide every year, including 300 million in North, Central and South America, because of the effects of air pollution, the report stated. Air contaminants can cause asthma and reduced lung growth in children and ischaemic heart disease and stroke in adults. The WHO isn’t the only one taking action: In July, doctors in Australia and New Zealand recommended pregnant women minimize their exposure to air pollution, and in August, a study revealed high levels of exposure are linked to potential mental health issues. In 2019, 90% of the worldwide population lived in areas that exceeded the 2005 recommendations of PM2. The WHO estimates that 80% of the deaths caused by PM2 could be eliminated if the new guidelines are followed. The organization hopes this evidence-based advice will arm policy makers to reduce fossil fuel emissions.
“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. “I urge all countries and all those fighting to protect our environment to put [the guidelines] to use to reduce suffering and save lives.”