Billions of People Still Breathe Unhealthy Air: New WHO Data

By Musisi Yiga John Updated at 1104 EAT on 5th April 2022.

Almost the entire global population (99%) breathes air that exceeds WHO air quality limits, and threatens their health. A record number of over 6000 cities in 117 countries are now monitoring air quality, but the people living in them are still breathing unhealthy levels of fine particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide, with people in low and middle-income countries suffering the highest exposures.

The findings have prompted the World Health Organization to highlight the importance of curbing fossil fuel use and taking other tangible steps to reduce air pollution levels.

Released in the lead-up to World Health Day, which this year celebrates the theme Our planet, our health, the 2022 update of the World Health Organization’s air quality database introduces, for the first time, ground measurements of annual mean concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a common urban pollutant and precursor of particulate matter and ozone. It also includes measurements of particulate matter with diameters equal or smaller than 10 μm (PM10) or 2.5 μm (PM2.5). Both groups of pollutants originate mainly from human activities related to fossil fuel combustion.

The new air quality database is the most extensive yet in its coverage of air pollution exposure on the ground. Some 2,000 more cities/human settlements are now recording ground monitoring data for particulate matter, PM10 and/or PM2.5, than the last update. This marks an almost 6-fold rise in reporting since the database was launched in 2011.

Meanwhile, the evidence base for the damage air pollution does to the human body has been growing rapidly and points to significant harm caused by even low levels of many air pollutants.

Particulate matter, especially PM2.5, is capable of penetrating deep into the lungs and entering the bloodstream, causing cardiovascular, cerebrovascular (stroke) and respiratory impacts. There is emerging evidence that particulate matter impacts other organs and causes other diseases as well.

NOis associated with respiratory diseases, particularly asthma, leading to respiratory symptoms (such as coughing, wheezing or difficulty breathing), hospital admissions and visits to emergency rooms

WHO last year revised its Air Quality Guidelines, making them more stringent in an effort to help countries better evaluate the healthiness of their own air.

“Current energy concerns highlight the importance of speeding up the transition to cleaner, healthier energy systems,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “High fossil fuel prices, energy security, and the urgency of addressing the twin health challenges of air pollution and climate change, underscore the pressing need to move faster towards a world that is much less dependent on fossil fuels.”

Steps Governments Can Take To improve air quality and health


A number of governments are taking steps to improve air quality, but WHO is calling for a rapid intensification of actions to:

Adopt or revise and implement national air quality standards according to the latest WHO Air Quality Guidelines
Monitor air quality and identify sources of air pollution
Support the transition to exclusive use of clean household energy for cooking, heating and lighting
Build safe and affordable public transport systems and pedestrian- and cycle-friendly networks
Implement stricter vehicle emissions and efficiency standards; and enforce mandatory inspection and maintenance for vehicle
Invest in energy-efficient housing and power generation
Improve industry and municipal waste management
Reduce agricultural waste incineration, forest fires and certain agro-forestry activities (e.g. charcoal production)
Include air pollution in curricula for health professionals and providing tools for the health sector to engage.

WHO’s Air Quality Guidelines

The evidence base for the harm caused by air pollution has been growing rapidly and points to significant harm caused by even low levels of many air pollutants. Last year, the WHO responded by revising its Air Quality Guidelines to reflect the evidence, making them more stringent, especially for PM and NO2, a move strongly supported by the health community, medical associations and patient organizations.

The 2022 database aims to monitor the state of the world’s air and feeds into progress tracking of the Sustainable Development Goals.

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