UN health agency proposes dramatic cut in air pollution, saving countless lives

5 October 2006

With air pollution estimated to cause some 2 million premature deaths around the world each year from respiratory infections, heart disease, and lung cancer, the United Nations health agency today called for dramatically lower standards for levels of pollutants in cities that are far tougher than many national limits currently applied.

Reducing levels of one particular type of pollutant known as PM10, produced mainly by burning fossil and other types of fuel, from 70 to 20 micrograms per cubic metre, could cut deaths in polluted cities by up to 15 per cent every year, the UN World Health Organization (WHO) said in releasing its new Air Quality Guidelines.

The Guidelines, which for the first time address all regions of the world and provide uniform targets for air quality, also substantially lower the recommended limits of ozone and sulphur dioxide. In some cities the targets would mean slashing current pollution levels more than three-fold.

“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,” WHO Director of Public Health and the Environment Maria Neira said. “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.”

Given the increasing evidence of the health impact of air pollution, WHO revised its existing guidelines for Europe and made them applicable worldwide after consulting more than 80 leading scientists around the world and reviewing thousands of recent studies from all regions.

“As such, they present the most widely agreed and up-to-date assessment of health effects of air pollution, recommending targets for air quality at which the health risks are significantly reduced,” the Director of the Special Programme for Health and Environment of WHO’s Regional Office for Europe, Roberto Bertollini, said.

“We look forward to working with all countries to ensure these Guidelines become part of national law,” he added.

While particulate matter is considered to be the main risk, the Guidelines also propose cutting the daily limit for ozone from 120 to 100 micrograms per cubic metre, 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.

For sulfur dioxide, the level is cut from 125 to 20 micrograms per cubic metre, resulting in lower childhood death and disease rates. The level for nitrogen dioxide remains unchanged, but the target – essential for cutting such diseases as bronchitis – remains a great challenge in many areas where car traffic is intense.


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