New WHO model shows 92% of world’s population breathing dangerous air

The World Health Organisation has released a new air quality model, which reveals the shocking statistic that a whopping 92% of our globe’s population is currently breathing unsafely polluted air.

Combining outdoor air quality data derived from satellite measurements, air transport models and ground-level outdoor monitoring stations from 3000+ locations, their most detailed outdoor data to date is explorable in an interactive map.1 The map quickly suggests the world’s most heavily polluted areas at a glance, spreading over much of Africa, the Western Pacific, Mediterranean region and South East Asia.

Air pollution’s toll on human health is estimated at 3 million deaths annually from outdoor pollution alone, while during 2012, an enormous 6.5 million deaths are estimated to have stemmed from indoor and outdoor air pollution combined. The WHO confirms their data shows that nearly 90% of all air pollution-related deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, with almost 2 in 3 deaths occurring within South East Asia and the Western Pacific.2

The map’s data focuses on concentrations of PM2.5, the pollutant widely recognised to have the most direct impact on human health due to these particles’ tiny size easily infiltrating the human system. The negative health effects of air pollution such as this are becoming increasingly recognised, ranging from respiratory and cardiovascular disease, to cancer and premature death. This new analysis shows that 92% of the world’s population is exposed to harmful outdoor PM2.5 pollution that exceeds the WHO’s recommended annual mean concentration of 10 μg/m3.

Maria Neria, director of the WHO’s public health and environment department, emphasised the importance of air quality data in driving change against the pollution problem to The Guardian, saying: “Countries are confronted with the reality of better data. Now we have the figures of how many citizens are dying from air pollution. What we are learning is, this is very bad. Now there are no excuses for not taking action.”3

Increased air quality monitoring globally can only help illuminate sources of air pollution further, and generate the information necessary to effectively combat the problem, saving lives.

Currently, sectors including transport, energy (particularly fossil fuels) and industry are recognised as major contributors to ambient air pollution. Dr Neira suggests that, with current knowledge of polluting sources, viable solutions "exist with sustainable transport in cities, solid waste management, access to clean household fuels and cook-stoves, as well as renewable energies and industrial emissions reductions."

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