the World health organization (WHO) on Wednesday tightened its air quality guidelines for the first time since 2005 in hopes of encouraging countries to adopt clean energy and preventing deaths and disease from pollution.
The new recommendations, including for particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide, both of which are included in fossil fuel emissions, could “save millions of lives” according to a statement cited by Reuters.
Air pollution prematurely kills at least 7 million people each year. Studies show that even with very low levels, “air pollution affects all parts of the body, from the brain to the adolescent baby in the womb,” said WHO Director General Tedros Adenom Gebreesus at a press conference.
the WHO, who is a member of the United Nations, hopes the change will encourage the 194 member states to take action to reduce fossil fuel emissions, which also lead to climate change. Countries around the world are under pressure to pledge bold plans to cut emissions ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in November.
The researchers welcomed the new recommendations but also expressed concern that some countries may have problems implementing them as much of the world is failing to meet older, less stringent standards.
In 2019, according to the WHO, up to 90% of the world’s population breathed air that was considered unhealthy according to the 2005 guidelines. And some countries, like India, still have national standards that are more liberal than the 2005 recommendations.
In the European Union, whose standards are well above the older WHO recommendations, some countries have failed despite the effects of anti-pandemic measures. The average annual pollution in 2020 remained close to and above the legal limits despite the shutdown of industry and traffic due to the coronavirus.
Experts say efforts to reduce pollution by reducing fossil fuel consumption have dual benefits – both in improving public health and in reducing global warming emissions.
The new recommendations cut in half the WHO limits for dust particles called PM2.5, which are smaller than 2.5 microns (less than a third the width of a human hair). This is small enough for such a particle to penetrate deep into the lungs and even get into the bloodstream.
According to the new limit values, the average annual concentration of PM2.5 must not be higher than 5 micrograms per cubic meter.
The old recommendations set an average annual limit of 10 micrograms. However, scientists have found that even long-term exposure to such low concentrations still contributes to heart and lung disease, stroke, and other negative health effects.
Most affected are people in low and middle income countries who rely on fossil fuel burning for energy.
“The evidence is pretty clear that the poor and less socially disadvantaged are more exposed just because of where they live,” said Jonathan Grieg, pediatrician and researcher at Queen Mary University in London. In general, he said, these groups emit less pollution but are more affected by its effects.
Adhering to the new recommendations would not only improve overall health, but could also help reduce health inequalities, he said.
When announcing the new guidelines, WHO said that “almost 80% of PM2.5-related deaths worldwide could be avoided if current air pollution was reduced.”
The average PM2.5 level in China for the first half of this year was 34 micrograms per cubic meter. As in the previous year, the level for Beijing was 41. Preliminary data from the measuring stations in Ruse and Varna, for example, indicate an average annual salary of almost 14 micrograms, i.e. above EU norm, but still far from those in many Asian cities.
“The most important thing is whether governments implement effective measures to reduce pollutant emissions, such as stopping investments in coal, oil and gas and prioritizing the transition to clean energy,” said Aidan Farrow, an international Greenpeace researcher from the University of Exeter in the UK .