The WHO has Tightened the Criteria for Air Pollution

The WHO has Tightened the Criteria for Air Pollution
23.09.2021 / 11:57

The World Health Organization (WHO) tightened its air quality guidelines on Wednesday for the first time since 2005, hoping to encourage countries to introduce clean energy and prevent deaths and diseases caused by pollution.

The new recommendations, including for particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide - both contained in fossil fuel emissions - could save "millions of lives", according to a statement quoted by Reuters.

Air pollution kills at least 7 million people prematurely each year. Studies show that even at very low levels, "air pollution affects all parts of the body, from the brain to the growing baby in the mother's womb," WHO Director-General Tedros Adenom Gebreesus told a news conference.

The WHO, which is part of the United Nations, hopes that the change will encourage the 194 member states to take action to reduce fossil fuel emissions, which also lead to climate change. Globally, countries are under pressure to promise bold plans to reduce emissions ahead of the November UN climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland.

Researchers applauded the new recommendations, but also expressed concern that some countries would have problems implementing them, given that much of the world does not meet older, less stringent standards.

In 2019, as many as 90% of the world's population breathed air that was considered unhealthy according to 2005 guidelines, according to WHO data. And some countries, such as India, still have national standards that are more liberal than the 2005 recommendations.

In the European Union, which has standards that are significantly higher than older WHO recommendations, some countries have failed despite the effects of anti-pandemic measures. Average annual pollution levels remained close to and above legal limits in 2020, even with the shutdown of industry and transport due to the coronavirus.

Experts say efforts to reduce pollution by reducing the use of fossil fuels would have a double benefit - both in improving public health and in reducing global warming emissions.

The new recommendations halve the WHO limits for dust particles known as PM2.5 that are less than 2.5 micrometers (less than one-third the width of a human hair). This is small enough for such a particle to penetrate deep into the lungs and even enter the bloodstream.

Under the new limits, the average annual concentrations of PM2.5 must not be higher than 5 micrograms per cubic meter.

The old recommendations set an average annual limit of 10 micrograms. But scientists have found that long-term exposure to even such low concentrations still contributes to heart and lung disease, stroke and other negative health effects.

Those most affected are those living in low- and middle-income countries who rely on the burning of fossil fuels for energy production.

"The evidence is pretty clear that the poorer and less socially disadvantaged will be more exposed just because of where they live," said Jonathan Grieg, a pediatrician and researcher at Queen Mary University in London. In general, he said, these groups emit less pollution, but face more of its effects.

Adherence to the new recommendations would not only improve overall health, but could work to reduce health inequalities, he said.

When announcing the new guidelines, the WHO said that "almost 80% of PM2.5-related deaths could be avoided worldwide if current levels of air pollution are reduced."

The average level of PM2.5 in China in the first half of this year was 34 micrograms per cubic meter. For Beijing, the level was 41, the same as last year. Preliminary data from the monitoring stations in Ruse and Varna, for example, indicate an average annual content of just under 14 micrograms, ie. above the EU norm, but still far from those in many Asian cities.

"The most important thing is whether governments implement effective policies to reduce pollutant emissions, such as stopping investment in coal, oil and gas and prioritizing the transition to clean energy," said Aidan Farrow, an international Greenpeace scientist at the British University of Exeter.

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