Air pollution kills 2 million every year

Posted: 16 October 2006

Air pollution in cities across the world is causing some two million premature deaths every year, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports, urging nations to adopt stricter air pollution standards.

The international health agency's latest Air Quality Guidelines call for nations to reduce the impact of air pollution by substantially cutting levels of particulate matter, ozone and sulphur dioxide.

Air pollution China
Air pollution China
The World Bank estimates that air pollution causes nearly 170,000 deaths in China every year.
"By reducing air pollution levels, we can help countries to reduce the global burden of disease from respiratory infections, heart disease, and lung cancer which they otherwise would be facing," said Maria Neira, WHO director of public health and the environment. "Moreover, action to reduce the direct impact of air pollution will also cut emissions of gases which contribute to climate change and provide other health benefits."

WHO cautioned that for some cities meeting the targets would require cutting current pollution levels more than three fold. The organization noted that many countries don't have any air pollution standards. Existing standards vary greatly, WHO said, and most fail to ensure sufficient protection of human health.

Particulate matter is the major concern, WHO said, and cutting this type of air pollution can produce the greatest health benefits. Produced mainly by the burning of fossil fuels, particulate matter has been increasingly linked to respiratory illness and heart disease.

Most cities currently have levels of coarse particulate matter - known as PM10 - in excess of 70 microgrammes per cubic metre. The guidelines recommend cutting levels of PM10 to 20 microgrammes, a reduction WHO says can reduce deaths from air pollution by 15 per cent a year.

WHO recommends cutting the daily limit for ozone, a key ingredient in smog, from 120 to 100 micrograms per cubic metre. The organization notes that this will pose a challenge for many cities, especially in developing countries, and particularly those with numerous sunny days when ozone concentrations are highest, causing respiratory problems and asthma attacks.

The guidelines call for reducing levels of sulphur dioxide from 125 to 20 microgrammes per cubic metre and note that cutting this pollutant will result in lower childhood death and disease rates.

WHO's Air Quality Guidelines were originally created in 1987 to address only Europe but were expanded to focus on all regions and provide standardized targets for air quality. WHO said the increasing evidence of the health impacts of air pollution prompted the organization to expand its guidelines to address all regions of the world and provide uniform targets for air quality.

The new guidelines were established after consultation with more than 80 leading scientists and are based on review of thousands of recent studies from all regions of the world.