A World Health Organisation (WHO) air quality model has revealed that 92% of the world’s population lives in areas where air quality levels exceed recommended limits.
The interactive map was developed in collaboration with the University of Bath and represents the most detailed outdoor air pollution-related health data by country ever reported by WHO.
The model provides information on population-weighted exposure to particulate matter (PM2.5) for all countries. It also indicates data on monitoring stations for PM10 and PM2.5 values for about 3000 cities and towns.
Dr Flavia Bustreo, assistant director general at WHO said: “The new WHO model shows countries where the air pollution danger spots are, and provides a baseline for monitoring progress in combatting it.”
The data was derived from satellite measurements, air transport models and ground station monitors for more than 3000 locations, both rural and urban.
According to WHO, some 3 million deaths per-year are linked to exposure to outdoor air pollution, but indoor air pollution can be just as deadly, the organisation claims. In 2012, an estimated 6.5 million deaths (11.6% of all global deaths) were associated with indoor and outdoor air pollution combined.
Nearly 90% of air pollution related deaths occur in low and middle income countries, with nearly two out of three occurring in WHO’s South-East Asia and Western Pacific regions.
94% are due to non-transmissible diseases – notably cardiovascular diseases, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer. Air pollution also increases the risks for acute respiratory infections.
“Air pollution continues to take a toll on the health of the most vulnerable populations – women, children and the older adults,” Dr Bustreo added. “For people to be healthy, they must breathe clean air from their first breath to their last.”
Major sources of air pollution include inefficient modes of transport, household fuel and waste burning, coal-fired power plants, and industrial activities. However, not all air pollution originates from human activity— it can also be influenced by factors such as dust storms, particularly in regions close to deserts.
The model calibrated data from satellite and ground stations to maximize reliability. National air pollution exposures were analysed against population and air pollution levels at a grid resolution of about 10 km x 10 km.
Dr Maria Neira, WHO director for the Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, said: “This new model is a big step forward towards even more confident estimates of the huge global burden of more than 6 million deaths – 1 in 9 of total global deaths – from exposure to indoor and outdoor air pollution.”
“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.”
This autumn, WHO will be rolling out BreatheLife, a global communications campaign to increase public awareness of air pollution as a major health and climate risk.
BreatheLife is led by WHO in partnership with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), hosted Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-lived Climate Pollutants.
The campaign stresses both the practical policy measures that cities can implement— such as better housing, transport, waste, and energy systems— and the measures that can be taken as communities or individuals to improve air quality.
“Fast action to tackle air pollution can’t come soon enough,” Dr Neira added. “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.”