WHO toughens air quality guidelines

The World Health Organization on Wednesday announced its first updated air quality standards in 15 years, saying health dangers associated with air pollution kick in at lower levels than previously thought.

© (Максим Шмаков/iStock) WHO toughens air quality guidelines

The new, nonbinding guidelines include downward revisions for recommended levels of six pollutants: ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide, as well as two forms of particulate matter, PM 2.5 and PM 10. The latter two are particularly hazardous, according to the WHO, as both are small enough to travel deep into the lungs and PM 2.5 is small enough to enter the bloodstream.

The organization noted that some 7 million deaths a year are attributed to air pollution, and according to a WHO analysis, nearly 80 percent of PM 2.5-related deaths alone could be averted. Wide disparities already exist between wealthier and developing countries on air-pollution-related health outcomes, and this gap is expected to widen as developing countries industrialize, increasing pollutants.

More than 90 percent of people worldwide live in areas with higher PM 2.5 concentrations than the 2005 guidelines recommended as of 2019, according to the WHO. Those same disparities exist for people of color in the U.S., who are disproportionately exposed to PM 2.5, according to research published in April in the journal Science Advances. Black Americans are exposed to above-average PM 2.5 concentrations from sources contributing to 78 percent of exposures, compared to 87 percent of sources for Hispanic Americans and 73 percent of sources for Asian Americans, the study found.

Conversely, the research indicated white Americans had below-average exposure to the pollutant from sources accounting for 60 percent of exposure.

“Air pollution is a threat to health in all countries, but it hits people in low- and middle-income countries the hardest,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement Wednesday. “WHO’s new Air Quality Guidelines are an evidence-based and practical tool for improving the quality of the air on which all life depends. I urge all countries and all those fighting to protect our environment to put them to use to reduce suffering and save lives.”

The new guidelines come as air pollution is a hot topic in international discussions. The international climate summit in Glasgow is weeks away, while earlier this week Chinese President Xi Jinping announcing at the United Nations General Assembly that China will end funding for coal-fired power plants.

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