UN health agency warns of rise in urban air pollution, with poorest cities most at risk

12 May 2016

More than 80 per cent of people living in urban areas that monitor air pollution are exposed to air quality levels that exceed guidelines set by the World Health Organization (WHO), with populations in low-income cities the most at risk for respiratory diseases and other long-term health problems.

Some 98 per cent of cities in low- and middle-income countries with more than 100,000 inhabitants do not meet WHO air quality limits, according to the latest global urban ambient air pollution database presented today by the agency. In high-income countries, however, that percentage drops to 56 per cent.

“Air pollution is a major cause of disease and death. It is good news that more cities are stepping up to monitor air quality, so when they take actions to improve it they have a benchmark,”

said Flavia Bustreo, WHO Assistant-Director General for Family, Women's and Children's Health. “When dirty air blankets our cities the most vulnerable urban populations – the youngest, oldest and poorest – are the most impacted.”

In the past two years, the database – which now covers 3,000 cities in 103 countries – has nearly doubled, with more cities measuring air pollution levels and recognizing the associated health impacts. As urban air quality declines, the risk of stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and chronic and acute respiratory diseases, including asthma, increases for the people who live in them, WHO stressed.

Global urban air pollution trends

During the five-year period from 2008 to 2013, WHO compared 795 cities in 67 countries for levels of small and fine particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5 – particles smaller than 10 or 2.5 microns). This included pollutants such as sulfates, nitrates and black carbon, which penetrate deep into the lungs and into the cardiovascular system, posing the greatest risks to human health. Data were then analyzed to develop regional trends.

Among the key trends from the period include that global urban air pollution levels increased by 8 per cent, despite improvements in some regions, according to the agency.

In general, urban air pollution levels were lowest in high-income countries, with lower levels most prevalent in Europe, the Americas and the Western Pacific region.

The highest urban air pollution levels were experienced in low- and middle-income countries in WHO's Eastern Mediterranean and South-East Asia regions, with annual mean levels often exceeding five to ten times the limits set by the agency, followed by low-income cities in the Western Pacific region.

In the Eastern Mediterranean and South-East Asia regions and in low-income countries in the Western Pacific region, levels of urban air pollution increased by more than five per cent in more than two thirds of the cities.

WHO noted that urban air pollution data remain sparse in the African region, although the available data revealed particulate matter levels above the median. The database now contains particulate matter measurements for more than twice as many cities than previous versions.

Reducing the toll on human health

Ambient air pollution, made of high concentrations of small and fine particulate matter, is the greatest environmental risk to health – causing more than three million premature deaths worldwide every year, WHO said.

“Urban air pollution continues to rise at an alarming rate, wreaking havoc on human health,” said Maria Neira, WHO Director, Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health. “At the same time, awareness is rising and more cities are monitoring their air quality. When air quality improves, global respiratory and cardiovascular-related illnesses decrease.”

Most sources of urban outdoor air pollution are well beyond the control of individuals and demand action by cities, as well as national and international policymakers to promote cleaner transport, more efficient energy production and waste management, WHO said.

More than half of the monitored cities in high-income countries and more than one third in low- and middle-income countries reduced their air pollution levels by more than 5 per cent in five years.

Levels for available mega-cities of more than 14 million habitants for the last available year in the period 2011-2015. Graphic: WHO

Reducing industrial smokestack emissions, increasing use of renewable power sources such as solar and wind, and prioritizing rapid transit, walking and cycling networks in cities are among the available and affordable strategies, the agency noted.

“It is crucial for city and national governments to make urban air quality a health and development priority,” said WHO's Carlos Dora.

“When air quality improves, health costs from air pollution-related diseases shrink, worker productivity expands and life expectancy grows. Reducing air pollution also brings an added climate bonus, which can become a part of countries' commitments to the climate treaty,” he added, referring to the Paris Agreement on climate change

WHO's air quality guidelines provide global guidance on thresholds and limits for key air pollutants that pose health risks. The guidelines indicate that by reducing particulate matter pollution from 70 to 20 micrograms per cubic metre, air pollution-related deaths could be reduced by about 15 per cent.

From 23 to 28 May, at the next session of theWorld Health Assembly – WHO's decision-making body – Member States will discuss a road map for an enhanced global response to the adverse health effects of air pollution.


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