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United Nations health agency sets higher and stricter bar for air quality

By on September 22, 2021 0

GENEVA (AP) – The World Health Organization said on Wednesday that the harmful health effects of air pollution are showing up at lower levels than they previously thought and are raising the bar higher high for policymakers and the public in its first update of its air quality guidelines in 15 years.

The United Nations health agency has released its revised air quality guidelines, as climate change is a high profile topic at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Chinese President Xi Jinping on Tuesday announced that China will no longer fund coal-fired power plants, which generate many of the pollutants targeted by the guidelines.

Since the last update of the WHO recommendations, better monitoring and science have clarified the global picture of the effects of six major air pollutants on human health. According to the agency, 90% of the world’s population already live in areas with at least one type of particularly harmful pollutant.

The reviews also highlight another – and often parallel – aspect of environmental concerns beyond widespread concerns about global warming and the impact of burning fossil fuels.

It is estimated that exposure to air pollution causes 7 million premature deaths and affects the health of millions more people each year, and air pollution “is now recognized as the greatest environmental threat to the world. human health, ”said Dr Dorota Jarosinska, WHO Europe program responsible for living and working environments.

Air pollution is now comparable to other global health risks, such as unhealthy diets and smoking, the WHO said.

The guidelines, which are not legally binding and intended to serve as a benchmark for policy makers, advocacy groups and academics, lower the recommended concentrations of six pollutants known to have health impacts: two types of particles known as the name of PM 2.5 and PM 10, as well as as ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide.

The guidelines could also send a message to the general public about lifestyle and business choices – whether it’s driving cars and trucks, littering, working in industry or farming. .

The WHO says the main sources of human-made air pollution can vary geographically, but include the energy and transport sectors, as well as landfills and domestic cooking and heating.

“We hope the stricter standards will draw attention to the importance of clean air to the health of humans and ecosystems,” said Jessica Seddon, global air quality manager at the World Resources Institute. “The challenge will come in making the WHO guidelines meaningful to the average person who spends their day.”

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

Such particles can penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream, causing respiratory and cardiovascular impacts. Air pollution has been linked to heart disease, diabetes, cancer and premature death, and recent evidence has suggested negative effects on pregnancy, children’s cognitive development and mental health, experts say.

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

“It’s just a huge change,” said Susan Anenberg, associate professor of environmental and occupational health and global health at George Washington University. “That annual guideline PM 2.5 average is going to be extremely difficult to achieve … There are very few people on the planet right now who have such low exposures.”

The 2016 guidelines have prompted many countries to take action even if they do so voluntarily, WHO insists. Since then, evidence has grown on the negative health impacts of air pollution based on improved pollution measurement systems and exposure assessments, which has led to the update. day.

“For the great countries of the world to do this, it will take major changes to our human systems. Said Anenberg. “They must stop burning fossil fuels and what the world decides to do about climate change in the coming weeks will have major impacts on our ability or not to follow such a directive.”

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

WHO has issued similar guidelines on issues as diverse as tobacco consumption, sugar consumption and video games. Sometimes its standards annoy industrial groups and confront decision-makers with difficult decisions.

While developed countries and some developing countries have set air quality standards, a report from the UN environment program earlier this month found that a third of the world’s countries do not have legally mandated standards for outdoor air quality. Many of them are found in Africa and the Western Pacific.

Over the past 20 years, air quality has improved in places where policies to reduce pollutant emissions have been applied, including Europe, the United States and Canada, said Vincent-Henri Peuch, Director of the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service of the European Union.

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

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

But WHO’s overall message was clear.

“The unenviable challenge for decision-makers will be to respond in a way that minimizes the proven damage to health, as indicated by the WHO, but with policies that are proportionate, cost-effective and, above all, offering equitable benefits to the whole country. and the population. Said Alastair Lewis, professor at York University of the National Center for Atmospheric Science.


Costley reported from Washington.

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