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Outdoor air pollution has grown 8% globally in the past 5 years, with billions of people around the world now exposed to dangerous air, according to new data from more than 3,000 cities compiled by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Air pollution levels were generally much lower for cities in developed countries with Sydney, New York and London registering 17, 16 and 22 micrograms per cubic metre for PM10s respectively. However, the data only includes measurements for particulates and does not include forms of air pollution such as NO2 and ozone.

“We have a public health emergency in many countries. Urban air pollution continues to rise at an alarming rate, wreaking havoc on human health. It’s dramatic, one of the biggest problems we are facing globally, with terrible future costs to society,” said Dr Maria Neira, director of public health at the WHO in Geneva.

Outdoor air pollution causes more than 3m deaths a year – more than malaria and HIV/Aids – and is now the biggest single killer in the world. The toll is expected to double as urban populations increase and car numbers approach 2bn by 2050.

Air pollutants such as sulphates, nitrates and black carbon penetrate deep into the lungs and into the cardiovascular system, posing the greatest risks to human health, says the UN.

“As urban air quality declines, the risk of stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and chronic and acute respiratory diseases, including asthma, increases for the people who live in them. When dirty air blankets our cities the most vulnerable urban populations – the youngest, oldest and poorest – are the most impacted,” said Flavia Bustreo, WHO assistant director general.

“More than 80% of people living in urban areas that monitor air pollution are exposed to air quality levels that exceed the World Health Organisation limits.

It is crucial for city and national governments to make urban air quality a health and development priority,” said Dr Carlos Dora, co-ordinator of the WHO’s Interventions for Healthy Environment programme. “When air quality improves, health costs from air pollution related diseases shrink, worker productivity expands and life expectancy grows. Reducing air pollution also brings an added climate bonus, which can become a part of countries’ commitments to the climate treaty.”

Courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd