WHO: 99% of the world is breathing polluted air

Virtually everyone on Earth is breathing polluted air, according to a new report from the World Health Organization (WHO). In a report released Monday, the U.N. agency stated that 99% of the global population “breathes air that exceeds WHO air quality limits, and threatens their health.”

That startling fact can be attributed in part to improved monitoring of air quality. An all-time high of more than 6,000 cities in 117 countries now monitor air pollution. That’s 2,000 more cities than the last update to the WHO’s air quality database, and six times as many as when it launched in 2011. The WHO is also now able for the first time to measure ground-level average annual concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, and it can track smaller sizes of particulate matter than ever before. (Exposure to nitrogen dioxide can cause respiratory disease such as asthma, symptoms such as coughing, and emergency room visits.)

An aerial view of vehicles driving near downtown Los Angeles.
An aerial view of vehicles driving near downtown Los Angeles. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The high percentage of areas that exceed the threshold for harmful pollution is also driven by the fact that last year the WHO tightened its standards for air quality for the first time in 15 years. The organization lowered exposure levels of pollutants including sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, ground-level ozone and particulate matter. The WHO calculates that air pollution causes more than 7 million premature deaths each year.

“It has been recognized that air pollution has an impact at a much lower level than previously thought,” Dr. Sophie Gumy, technical officer at WHO’s Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health, told UN News. “So, with all the new evidence that has come up over the last 15 years since the last WHO air quality guideline update, most of the values of the guidelines levels have been reduced.”

Most air pollution is caused by the combustion of fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal, which are also responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change. Climate change is also itself a cause of increasing air pollution, due to the fact that ground-level ozone, also known as smog, forms more readily in warmer temperatures, and wildfires are increasingly frequent and severe.

The WHO called for nations to accelerate their transition to electric vehicles and clean sources of energy.

“Current energy concerns highlight the importance of speeding up the transition to cleaner, healthier energy systems,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in the report. “High fossil fuel prices, energy security, and the urgency of addressing the twin health challenges of air pollution and climate change, underscore the pressing need to move faster towards a world that is much less dependent on fossil fuels.”

Global temperatures are on the rise and have been for decades. Step inside the data and see the magnitude of climate change.

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