May 08, 2014
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WHO: Declining air quality poses significant risks worldwide

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Data from WHO suggest that the air quality is worsening in much of the world, despite the availability of data to compare and improve conditions that potentially pose significant health risks, according to a press release.

In April, the organization published new data indicating that outdoor air pollution was responsible for 3.7 million deaths among people aged younger than 60 years in 2012, the release said.

“Too many urban centers today are so enveloped in dirty air that their skylines are invisible,” Flavia Bustreo, MD, MPH, WHO assistant director-general for family, children and women’s health, said in the press release. “Not surprisingly, this air is dangerous to breathe. So a growing number of cities and communities worldwide are striving to better meet the needs of their residents — in particular children and the elderly.”

The organization’s urban air quality database spans 1,600 cities in 91 countries (500 more cities compared with the 2011 database). The additional monitoring shows that half of the urban population currently monitored is exposed to air pollution that is at least 2.5 times greater than WHO-recommended levels, according to press release data. This finding places those populations at risk for developing serious, long-term health conditions.

The use of fossil fuels (ie, coal-fired power plants, dependence on private transport motor vehicles, inefficient use of energy in buildings, and the use of biomass for cooking and heating) contribute to this problem, according to WHO.

Maria Neira

Maria Neira

“We can win the fight against air pollution and reduce the number of people suffering from respiratory and heart disease, as well as lung cancer,” Maria Neira, MD, MPH, WHO director for public health, environmental and social determinants of health, said in the release. “Effective policies and strategies are well understood, but they need to be implemented at sufficient scale. Cities such as Copenhagen and Bogotà, for example, have improved air quality by promoting ‘active transport’ and prioritizing dedicated networks of urban public transport, walking and cycling.”

Measurements of fine particulate matter of 2.5 mcm or less in diameter (PM2.5) is deemed a predictor for health risks from air pollution, according to the press release. In its report, WHO cites that 816 cities in high-income countries reported PM2.5 levels; 544 cities reported on PM10. Low– and middle-income countries demonstrated an annual mean PM2.5 measurement in 70 cities, while 512 cities reached PM10, data showed.

“We cannot buy clean air in a bottle, but cities can adopt measures that will clean the air and save the lives of their people,” Carlos Dora, MD, MsC, PhD, coordinator of interventions for healthy environments at WHO’s department of public health, environmental and social determinants of health, said in the press release.

For more information:

WHO’s work on outdoor air pollution. Accessed May 7, 2014.