The World Health Organization (WHO) said 92 percent of people live in areas with excessive air pollution, and the health risks associated with it predominantly affect vulnerable populations in low- and middle-income countries.
“Air pollution continues take a toll on the health of the most vulnerable populations – women, children and the older adults,” said Flavia Bustreo, assistant director-general for family, women’s and children’s health at the WHO, in a statement. “For people to be healthy, they must breathe clean air from their first breath to their last.”
The newly released findings, which come just weeks after the World Bank estimated that air pollution costs the world trillions of dollars a year, draw from new satellite data and traditional ground measurements of pollution in about 3,000 places worldwide.
According to the WHO, the biggest sources of air pollution include inefficient modes of transport, household fuel and waste burning, coal-fired power plants and industrial activities. Air quality is also influenced by naturally occurring phenomena such as dust storms in regions in or near deserts. Indoor air pollution, which is just as deadly, is most commonly caused by burning wood, animal dung, crop waste and coal without proper ventilation.
Exposure to these various forms of air pollution led to around 6.5 million deaths, or 11.6 percent of all deaths globally, in 2012. The vast majority of these deaths are caused by noncommunicable diseases, including cardiovascular diseases, chronic pulmonary obstructive disease, increased risk of stroke and even lung cancer. According to the WHO, nearly 90 percent of these deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, notably the Mediterranean, southeast Asia and the western Pacific.
These and other findings have emphasized the real threat that air pollution poses to global public health. The good news is that more researchers have been able to build off one another’s findings – drawing from satellite data, ground stations and other means – to monitor the regions and populations most at risk for exposure to air pollutants.
Researchers are also coming up with new and effective ways to study the health effects of air pollution, from analyzing human brain tissue to strapping nitrogen dioxide sensors to the backs of pigeons.
“More and more cities are monitoring air pollution now, satellite data is more comprehensive, and we are getting better at refining the related health estimates,” said Maria Neira, director of the Department of Public Health and the Environment at the WHO, in a statement.
“Fast action to tackle air pollution can’t come soon enough,” Neira said. “Solutions exist with sustainable transport in cities, solid waste management, access to clean household fuels and cook-stoves, as well as renewable energies and industrial emissions reductions.”
Thirty-one countries formally joined the Paris climate change pact at the U.N. last Wednesday, raising hopes that it could soon jumpstart global efforts to reduce the pollution of the world’s atmosphere. But faced with the reality that reversing or even slowing air pollution could take years, scientists are developing new means of adapting – from an over-the-counter inhaler to protect the lungs against air pollution to more effective anti-pollution masks – to ease the global health burden in the meantime.