92 percent of the world’s population are breathing dangerously polluted air, according to a recent report by the World Health Organization. The report details the latest findings of air monitoring efforts throughout the globe, which have found that harmful fine particles 2.5 microns across, called PM 2.5s, have reached levels above the WHO’s safety guidelines in much of the world. These particles can be extremely harmful to human lungs when inhaled.
98 percent of low and middle-income cities around the globe had air pollution which exceeded these safety guidelines. In some regions, such as Africa and the eastern Mediterranean, rural areas had even higher concentrations of air pollution than these urban areas.
The report went further, to estimate that 3 million deaths annually are attributable to air pollution. 94 percent of those deaths were due to diseases such as lung cancer, heart disease, and stroke – all of which have been linked to air pollution. 9 out of 10 of those deaths occurred in poor countries. China is at the top of this list, with one million deaths in 2012. The same year had 600,000 air pollution related deaths in India, and 140,000 in Russia.
The Americas were the only regions studied with more than 20 percent of the population living in areas with levels of pollution that meet WHO guidelines. Even so, almost 40,000 people die annually from air pollution related causes in the US alone.
The report compiled data from eight international monitoring institutions. This included data from over 3,000 locations, which included satellites, ground stations, and information from air transport sources. The WHO calls this report the most detailed air pollution report ever released.
The sobering nature of the new data is likely to come as a shock to many, and WHO officials attribute this to greatly improved data collecting abilities. According to Maria Neria WHO’s department of public health and the environment director, “Countries are confronted with the reality of better data. Now we have the figures of how many citizens are dying from air pollution. What we are learning is, this is very bad. Now there are no excuses for not taking action.”
PM 2.5 particles have been revealed to be the leading cause of pollution related deaths. Gavin Shaddick, who led the team who assembled the report, explained “The real driver of ill health is ultra-fine particles, 2.5s – they have the ability to permeate the membrane of the lungs and enter our blood system. Increasingly there is an understanding that there are not just respiratory diseases but cardiovascular ones associated with PM2.5s.”
Whether the report leads to action on the part of the global community remains to be seen.