9 out of 10 people worldwide breathe polluted air - BreatheLife 2030
Network Updates / Geneva, Switzerland / 2018-05-01

9 out of 10 people worldwide breathe polluted air:
But more countries are taking action

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Nine out of ten people worldwide breathe polluted air, which causes a whopping seven million deaths, largely in low- to middle-income countries– but more countries than ever are taking action to improve air quality.

Those are the main conclusions of the latest air pollution data and analysis released today by the World Health Organization (WHO), in a comprehensive, multi-city study of the health burden of ambient (outdoor) and indoor air pollution.

In 2016, of the seven million deaths by air pollution, 4.2 million were caused by ambient or outdoor air pollution, while an estimated 3.8 million were caused by cooking with polluting fuels and technologies.

More than 90 per cent of air pollution-related deaths occured in low- and middle-income countries, mainly in Asia and Africa, followed by low- and middle-income countries of the Eastern Mediterranean region, Europe and the Americas.

“If we don’t take urgent action on air pollution, we will never come close to achieving sustainable development.”

“Air pollution threatens us all, but the poorest and most marginalized people bear the brunt of the burden,” said Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“It is unacceptable that over 3 billion people – most of them women and children – are still breathing deadly smoke every day from using polluting stoves and fuels in their homes. If we don’t take urgent action on air pollution, we will never come close to achieving sustainable development,” he said.

More countries taking action

“We are seeing an acceleration of political interest in this global public health challenge. The increase in cities recording air pollution data reflects a commitment to air quality assessment and monitoring.”

More than 4,300 cities in 108 countries are now included in WHO’s ambient air quality database, making this the world’s most comprehensive database on ambient air pollution.

Since the 2016 update, more than 1,000 additional cities have been added to the database, which shows that more countries are measuring air pollution than ever before.

“Many of the world’s megacities exceed WHO’s guideline levels for air quality by more than five times, representing a major risk to people’s health,” says Dr Maria Neira, WHO’s Director of the Department of Public Health, Social and Environmental Determinants of Health.

But while the latest data shows ambient air pollution levels are still dangerously high in most parts of the world, they also show some positive progress.

Countries are taking measures to tackle and reduce air pollution from particulate matter. For example, in just two years, India’s Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana Scheme has provided some 37 million women living below the poverty line with free LPG connections to support them to switch to clean household energy use. Mexico City has committed to cleaner vehicle standards, including a move to soot-free buses and a ban on private diesel cars by 2025.

“We are seeing an acceleration of political interest in this global public health challenge. The increase in cities recording air pollution data reflects a commitment to air quality assessment and monitoring. Most of this increase has occurred in high-income countries, but we hope to see a similar scale-up of monitoring efforts worldwide,” Dr Neira said.

Key findings

• WHO estimates that around 90% of people worldwide breathe polluted air. Over the past 6 years, ambient air pollution levels have remained high and approximatively stable, with declining concentrations in some part of Europe and in the Americas.

• The highest ambient air pollution levels are in the Eastern Mediterranean Region and in South-East Asia, with annual mean levels often exceeding more than 5 times WHO limits, followed by low and middle-income cities in Africa and the Western Pacific.

• Africa and some of the Western Pacific have a serious lack of air pollution data. For Africa, the database now contains PM measurements for more than twice as many cities as previous versions, however data was identified for only 8 of 47 countries in the region.

• Europe has the highest number of places reporting data.

• In general, ambient air pollution levels are lowest in high-income countries, particularly in Europe, the Americas and the Western Pacific. In cities of high-income countries in Europe, air pollution has been shown to lower average life expectancy by anywhere between 2 and 24 months, depending on pollution levels.

The WHO will convene the first Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health from 30 October – 1 November 2018 to bring governments and partners together in a global effort to improve air quality and combat climate change.

More on this story

Press release: 9 out of 10 people worldwide breathe polluted air