WHO cuts limits on fossil fuel air pollution guidelines

This story was originally published by The Guardian and appears here as part of the Climate Table collaboration.

the World Health Organization has cut recommended limits for air pollution and urged nations to fight dirty air and save millions of lives.

In the first 16-year update, the guideline limit for the most harmful pollution – tiny particles from burning fossil fuels – was cut in half. The new limit for nitrogen dioxide (NO2), produced mainly by diesel engines, is now 75% lower.

The new stringent limits reflect the large body of evidence produced in recent years about the fatal harm caused to people by much lower levels of pollution than previously thought. Air pollution kills at least seven million people a year, the WHO said, while a recent study estimated 8.7 million premature deaths per year from burning coal, oil and gas: 20 percent of all deaths.

Pollution cut an average of two years of the lives of the world’s population, and up to six years in highly polluted nations like India, making it a bigger killer than smoking, car accidents or HIV AIDS.

The scientists emphasized that even the new limits should not be considered safe, as there appears to be no level at which pollutants stop causing harm. They said reducing pollution would improve health even in countries with relatively clean air. A 2019 review concluded that air pollution it may be damaging all the organs of the body, causing heart and lung disease, diabetes and dementia and reducing intelligence.

Air pollution is the greatest environmental threat to human health and is a public health emergency. According to WHO, which costs billions of dollars a year. More than 90 percent of the world’s population already breathes pollution levels above the 2005 WHO guideline for minute particles. Reducing air pollution brings huge and profitable health benefits and reduces the carbon emissions that are causing the climate crisis.

“Air pollution is a threat to health in all countries,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general. The guidelines are not legally binding, but countries can use them to plan their action. “I urge all countries to use them to reduce suffering and save lives,” he said. The WHO said that dirty air often affects the most vulnerable people and that clean air should be a “fundamental human right.”

Activist Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, whose daughter Ella became the first person to have air pollution cited as official cause of deathHe said: “Air pollution hampers the health and future of children. There is no safe level, but at least following the new WHO guidelines will guide us towards achieving clean air for all ”.

Lwando Maki, a physician with the South African Public Health Association, said: “I saw the impacts of toxic air pollution every day in Johannesburg. Updates to air quality standards were overdue. “

Renewable energy is often cheaper than fossil fuels even without taking into account the economic burden of air pollution, said Avinash Chanchal of Greenpeace India. “We have all the tools we need to solve the air pollution crisis. At this point, tackling air pollution is a matter of political will, not technology. “

The World Health Organization says that at least seven million people a year die from air pollution. #Dirty Air # Pollution #Health # WHO #FossilFuels

Air pollution is the greatest environmental threat to human health and is a public health emergency, according to the WHO, costing trillions of dollars a year. Photo by Alexandr Trubetskoy / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Each of the 100 most populous cities in the world exceeded the new WHO guideline for minute particle pollution in 2020, according to Greenpeace analysis. This includes Tokyo, Shanghai, New York, Lagos, London and Delhi, with the latter exceeding the limit 17 times.

Dorota Jarosińska, WHO technical lead for the new guidelines, said: “These are very ambitious public health recommendations, and meeting the guideline levels would be the ultimate goal, but all steps to achieve it are critical.

“The intermediate goals (which have also been set by the WHO) are milestones in this ongoing march towards achieving air quality that is more protective of health. Every step you take to improve air quality brings health benefits. “

the new guidelines are the product of five years of systematic review by dozens of scientists, considering more than 500 studies and including several rounds of Peer Review. The guidelines represent the level at which there is already strong evidence of harm to health.

“We are sure they are really robust,” Jarosińska said. “But these levels do not at all mean that we are sure there is no harm (even at lower levels).”

One of the most damaging pollutants is tiny particles, smaller than 2.5 microns (PM2.5), which can pass through the lungs into the bloodstream and affect other organs. WHO has lowered the guideline for average annual exposure to PM2.5 from 10 to five micrograms per cubic meter (µg / m3). The WHO classified these particles as causing cancer in 2013. For NO2, WHO has lowered the annual mean limit from 40 to 10 µg / m3.

Nearly 80 percent of the millions of PM2.5-related deaths could be prevented if current pollution levels were lowered to those of the new guidelines, according to the WHO, compared to a 48 percent reduction below the limit of 2005. WHO also said: “Air pollution is probably a contributing factor to the health burden caused by COVID-19. “

In the UK, environmental lawyers ClientEarth said that legal pollution limits for PM2.5 and NO2 they were now four times higher than the WHO guidelines, meaning that people are exposed to levels well above what is known to be acceptable. NO2 levels are already above UK limits in 75 per cent of urban areas.

“These new guidelines reflect the best science available and the conclusion is irrefutable: air pollution, even at lower levels, seriously endangers people’s health,” said Andrea Lee of ClientEarth. “This should serve as a wake-up call for the UK government: ministers should strive to act.”

A UK Environment Ministry spokesperson said: “We will set ambitious air quality targets through our Environment Bill. We will consider the updated WHO PM2.5 guidelines to inform the development of air quality goals, but we must not underestimate the challenges they would bring, particularly in large cities and for people’s everyday lives. “

A consultation on the proposed targets is expected in early 2022.


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