According to data from a new report by WHO’s global health body, as many as 90% of people around the world live in areas with highly polluted air, responsible for more than six million deaths every year. “It is a public health emergency,” said Maria Neira, head of the organisation’s Department of Public Health and Environment.
While underdeveloped countries in general and urban environments in particular have it the worst, air in rural areas is significantly more contaminated than many people think.
Indoor air is not much better, either, accounting for roughly half the annual fatalities attributed to ambient pollution. Part of that can be explained by people burning charcoal while cooking, mostly seen at low-income households in third world countries.
The report, which came out on just today, September 27, is based on data collected from more than 3,000 sites across the globe, finding that “92 percent of the world’s population live in places where air quality levels exceed WHO limits”.
Particulate matter that’s less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter, dubbed PM2.5, is the most dangerous of all, and includes toxins like sulfate and black carbon (formed by incomplete combustion of fossil and many other types of fuel) that can penetrate deep into the lungs and the cardiovascular system.
Despite ground readings still being unavailable across much of the developing world, the UN agency now has much more information about the levels of air pollution than ever before, making it easier to estimate its global burden.
Unfortunately, many of the measures taken to prevent excessive exposure are largely ineffective. According to Neira, issuing daily air quality warnings, such as those sometimes issued in Beijing, do little to protect the average person as damage accrues over time, and wearing face masks – another means to decrease the amount of particulate matter than ends up in our systems – sorely lacks evidence in terms of efficiency.
To really tackle the problem, Neira recommends cutting the number of vehicles on the road, improving waste management and promoting clean cooking fuel – all worthwhile undertakings, which, sadly, would take a long time to come into effect even in the most conducive of political climates.