World Health Organization reports 92% of world population breathes dangerous air

Lower- and middle-income areas are most often affected

Graphic by Aldo Rios.

In a report released this past Tuesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that 92 per cent of the world’s population breathes air that exceeds the WHO’s quality limits – meaning that the air would be considered unhealthily saturated with pollutants.

The report came in the form of interactive maps, which were colour-coded based on the location’s air quality. The data was collected via satellite measurements, air transport models, and ground station monitors.

“The new WHO model shows countries where the air pollution danger spots are, and provides a baseline for monitoring progress in combatting it,” said Dr. Flavia Bustreo, the assistant director general at WHO, in an official statement.

The map determines quality by the WHO’s ambient air quality guidelines, and measures this by judging PM2.5 (µg/m3), which is a type of atmospheric particulate matter. Atmospheric particulate matter can be the cause of health problems and is found in greater numbers in more polluted air. PM2.5 includes pollutants that cause cardiovascular health problems, such as sulfur and black carbon, and is particularly dangerous for its capability of easily entering the lungs.

The report adds that around three million deaths per year can be connected to exposure to unhealthy outdoor air. In 2012, 11.6 per cent of all deaths worldwide could be linked to both indoor and outdoor poor air quality.

“Air pollution continues take a toll on the health of the most vulnerable populations: women, children, and the older adults,” said Dr. Bustreo.

“For people to be healthy, they must breathe clean air from their first breath to their last.”


Lower income, lower air quality

The unfortunate truth is that poverty-stricken countries are the most likely to have poor air quality, with nearly two out of three air pollution-related deaths occurring in southeast Asia and the western Pacific region.

The connection between air quality and median income level is in part due to the combination of less access to healthcare in lower income areas, along with the fact that many of these areas are more likely to have natural aspects of their weather that cause air pollution, such as dust storms.

Even in lower income areas, the WHO’s report adds that air quality varies, and adds, “people within countries are unevenly exposed to air pollution, depending if they live in a city or in a rural area, or if they live close to a busy road, or to polluting industries.”


Winnipeg’s air deemed “safe”

Canada has some of the best air quality in the world. The WHO’s interactive map judges areas based on their annual average PM2.5 quality. Under this, the number can range from less than ten to over seventy. The higher the number, the less healthy the air quality in the area is. The WHO deems a mean PM2.5 of ten or under as the “safest.”

Canada has a mean PM2.5 of 7 µg/m3, placing it in the “safe” category. This also makes Canada the country with the tenth best air quality in the world, tying for the spot with Finland. Winnipeg matches the country-wide mean, sitting at 7 µg/m3. To compare with our neighbors, Brandon has a mean of 6 µg/m3 and Edmonton has a mean of 8 µg/m3.

Canada is ranked only slightly above the United States, which has a mean of 8 µg/m3. Countries with lower levels of unhealthy particulate matter than Canada include Australia, Fiji, and Sweden. New Zealand, the Solomon Islands, and Brunei Darussalam tie for the lowest levels of PM2.5, sitting at 5 µg/m3. At 108 µg/m3, Saudi Arabia has the highest levels.


A call to action

Even in countries with better air quality, combating air pollution should be considered crucial. In June, the leaders of Canada, the United States, and Mexico met to discuss what was called the North American Climate, Clean Energy, and Environment Partnership. Amongst the many issues discussed was the need to reduce air pollution. One of the ideas brought to the table was to “reduce air pollutant emissions by aligning air pollutant emission standards for light- and heavy-duty vehicles and corresponding low-sulphur fuel standards beginning in 2018.”

In 2015, over 150 world leaders gathered for the UN Sustainable Development Summit, where they discussed their goal to “substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water, and soil pollution and contamination” by 2030.

In May 2016, delegates at the 69th World Health Assembly approved what they called a “road map for responding to the adverse health effects of air pollution.” This map encouraged enhanced global action taken to reduce air pollution, and included points such as expanding general awareness of the issue, and enhanced monitoring and reporting of health trends.

In addition to this, the WHO has just launched their BreatheLife campaign to increase awareness of the effects of polluted air on health and climate. The campaign lists alternate methods of transportation and creating more efficient methods of cooking, lighting, and heating as goals to reduce overall air pollution.