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How much air pollution is too much? Global limits lowered for 6 pollutants

1st update in 15 years to air quality guidelines used as reference by policymakers, academics

Vehicles drive on a highway as smog envelops the area of Lahore, Pakistan, on Nov. 11, 2020. The World Health Organization has reduced the recommended limits for six harmful air pollutants for the first time in 15 years.

Vehicles drive on a highway as smog envelops the area of Lahore, Pakistan, on Nov. 11, 2020. The World Health Organization has reduced the recommended limits for six harmful air pollutants for the first time in 15 years.

Photo: (K.M. Chaudary/The Associated Press)

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The World Health Organization (WHO) said Wednesday that the harmful health effects of air pollution kick in at lower levels than it previously thought and it is setting a higher bar for policymakers and the public in its first update to its air quality guidelines in 15 years.

The UN health agency released its revised air quality guidelines as climate change is a leading topic at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Chinese President Xi Jinping announced Tuesday that China will no longer fund power plants fired by coal, which generates several of the pollutants covered by the guidelines.

Since the last update of WHO recommendations, better monitoring and science have cleared up the global picture about the effects of six major air pollutants on human health. According to the agency, 90 per cent of the world's people already live in areas with at least one particularly harmful type of pollutant.

The revisions also highlight another — and often parallel — aspect to environmental concerns beyond widespread worries about global warming and the impact of burning fossil fuels.

Exposure to air pollution is estimated to cause seven million premature deaths and affect the health of millions more people each year, and air pollution is now recognized as the single biggest environmental threat to human health, said Dr. Dorota Jarosinska, WHO Europe program manager for living and working environments.

Air pollution is now comparable to other global health risks like unhealthy diet and tobacco smoking, WHO said.

What the guidelines are for

The guidelines, which are not legally binding and intended as a reference for policymakers, advocacy groups and academics, lower the advised concentrations of six pollutants known to have impacts on health:

  • two types of particulate matter known as PM 2.5 and PM 10
  • ozone
  • nitrogen dioxide
  • sulfur dioxide
  • carbon monoxide

The guidelines could also send a message to the wider public about lifestyle and business choices — whether it's driving cars and trucks, disposing of garbage, working in industrial jobs or farming.

Where pollutants come from

WHO says the main human-generated sources of air pollution can vary geographically but include the energy and transportation sectors, as well as waste dump sites and home cooking and heating.

We hope the tighter standards will draw attention to just how critical clean air is for human and ecosystem health, said Jessica Seddon, global lead for air quality at the World Resources Institute. 

The difficulty will come in making the WHO guidelines meaningful for the average person going about their day.

Health impacts

While wealthy countries in Europe, Asia and North America have made strides in improving air quality in recent years, WHO says globally more than 90 per cent of the world population breathes air with PM 2.5 concentrations that exceed the recommended levels in its last guidelines, published in 2006.

Such particles can penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream, resulting in both respiratory and cardiovascular impacts. Air pollution has been linked to heart disease, diabetes, cancer and early death. Recent evidence has suggested negative effects on pregnancy, cognitive development in kids, and mental health, experts say.

The new guidelines set or revise downward recommended air pollution levels for nearly all of the six particles both on a daily and annual basis. For example, they slashed the PM 2.5 recommendation on an annual basis to 5 micrograms per cubic meter, down from its previous level of 10.

What the change means

That is just a huge change, said Susan Anenberg, associate professor of environmental and occupational health and global health at George Washington University.

This annual average for PM 2.5 in the guidelines is going to be extremely difficult to meet. … There's very few people on the planet right now that have exposures that are that low.

The 2016 guidelines prompted many countries to take action even though WHO insists they are voluntary. Since then, evidence has grown about the negative impacts of air pollution on health based on improved pollution measurement systems and exposure assessments, leading to the update.

WATCH | See the impact of pandemic lockdowns on air pollution:

The ability of countries around the world to achieve those levels will require major changes to human systems, Anenberg said. 

They have to stop burning fossil fuels and what the world decides to do about climate change in the coming weeks will have major impacts on whether or not we're able to follow a guideline like that.

A key UN climate summit is set to take place in Glasgow, Scotland, in six weeks.

How bad is air pollution around the world?

WHO has issued similar guidelines on issues as diverse as tobacco consumption, sugar intake and playing video games. At times, its standards rankle industry groups and confront policymakers with difficult decisions.

While developed countries and some developing ones have set standards for air quality, a report from the UN's environment program earlier this month found that one-third of the world's countries have no legally mandated standards for the quality of outdoor air. Many of those are in Africa and the Western Pacific.

A person walks past a Toronto mural depicting the harms of air pollution. According to the World Health Organization, 90 per cent of the world's population breathes air with concentrations of PM 2.5, a pollutant known to have impacts on health, that exceed the recommended levels in its last guidelines, published in 2006.

A person walks past a Toronto mural depicting the harms of air pollution. According to the World Health Organization, 90 per cent of the world's population breathes air with concentrations of PM 2.5, a pollutant known to have impacts on health, that exceed the recommended levels in its last guidelines, published in 2006.

Photo: La Presse canadienne / Nathan Denette

Over the last 20 years, air quality has improved in places where policies for reducing pollutant emissions have been enforced, including Europe, the United States and Canada, said Vincent-Henri Peuch, director of the European Union's Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service.

China has seen improvements too. But air quality has deteriorated in many other parts of the world, especially in low-income countries, he said.

There are areas that offer promise. Experts note improvements through the retirement of old cars and their replacement with models that emit less nitrogen dioxide or run on batteries.

But WHO's overall message was stark.

The unenviable challenge for policymakers will be to respond in a way that minimizes the proven harms to health, as set out by WHO, but with policies that are proportionate, cost-effective and crucially, deliver benefits equitably across the country and population, said University of York professor Alastair Lewis of the National Centre for Atmospheric Science.

The Associated Press

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