[This text is written by the Principal Investigators (PI) in air pollution at ISGlobal: Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, Josep Maria Antó, Xavier Basagaña, Payam Dadvand, Monica Guxens, Manolis Kogevinas, Kurt Straif, Jordi Sunyer, Cathryn Tonne, Michelle Turner, Martine Vrijheid.]
Air pollution is the major global environmental health threat that causes a range of adverse health effects, even at the lowest observable concentrations. Every year millions of people die prematurely around the world and many more get ill because of air pollution. The health effects of air pollution include, but are not limited to, cardio and respiratory disease, cancer, and effects on the brain and birth outcomes.
Image: Health effects of air pollution. citieswewant.isglobal.org.
The foetus and children are particularly vulnerable with air pollution causing, amongst others, pre-term birth, low birth, still birth, childhood asthma, and obesity and a reduction in cognitive development and school performance. In the European Union alone, air pollution causes 200,000 new cases of childhood asthma each year, around one-third of all new cases of childhood asthma. We need to do much more to protect future generations.
Finally, after many years, the World Health Organization (WHO) has updated its 2005 Global Air Quality Guidelines (AQG) in September 2021. The new air quality guidelines are much lower than the previous ones, and based on a much larger body of research than before.
After many years, the World Health Organization (WHO) has updated its 2005 Global Air Quality Guidelines. The new air quality guidelines are much lower than the previous ones, and based on a much larger body of research than before
They recommend aiming for annual mean concentrations of PM2.5 not exceeding 5 µg/m3 and NO2 not exceeding 10 µg/m3, and the peak season mean 8-hr ozone concentration not exceeding 60 µg/m3. For reference, the corresponding 2005 WHO guideline values for PM2.5 and NO2 were, respectively, 10 µg/m3 and 40 µg/m3 with no recommendation issued for long-term ozone concentrations. While the guidelines are not legally binding, we hope they will influence air quality policy across the globe for many years to come, and lower the current large public health impacts of air pollution.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has updated its 2005 Global Air Quality Guidelines (AQG) in September 2021.
The upcoming 2022 revision of the EU Ambient Air Quality Directive will offer the chance to lead the way and integrate the new WHO air quality guidelines into European law and implement them through the EU.
Current EU ambient air quality guidelines are even lagging behind the now superseded WHO guidelines (e.g. the PM2.5 of 25 µg/m3) and allow for a large burden of disease related to air pollution (e.g. 400,000 premature deaths annually). Too much attention has been paid to other aspects than health. European citizens deserve clear and safe air.
Current EU ambient air quality guidelines are even lagging behind the now superseded WHO guidelines and allow for a large burden of disease related to air pollution. Too much attention has been paid to other aspects than health. European citizens deserve clear and safe air.
This will provide challenges. For example, cities are hotspots of air pollution and many in the EU exceed even the current guidelines. Significant sources of air pollution are, for example, motorized traffic, residential heating, indoor biomass burning, ports (shipping), airports and industry. We urgently need to reduce private motorised traffic in cities and increase public and active transportation, replace fossil fuels with renewable energy and provide more green space to name a few measures.
Source: isglobalranking.org. Data from the study “Premature mortality due to air pollution in European cities; an Urban Burden of Disease Assessment” (Khomenko et al., 2021), published in The Lancet Planetary Health in January 2021. The levels refer to the 2005 WHO limit values.
But it is not only cities, as for example also the agricultural sector contributes significantly to air pollution. Efforts should be made to reduce the air pollution emissions by changing agricultural practices.
But perhaps there has never been a better time to reduce air pollution levels. The climate crisis also requires drastic changes to our society and many measures that address and reduce the impacts of the climate crisis also reduce air pollution. The COP26 in Glasgow in November provides a unique and essential opportunity to agree and implement the measures, which should be backed up by large financial measures. The COVID-19 financial recovery funds should be directed towards these challenges.
The COP26 in Glasgow in November provides a unique and essential opportunity to agree and implement the measures, which should be backed up by large financial measures
The urgent need is recognised by more than 100 medical, public health and scientific societies that provide strong support for implementation of the guidelines throughout the world, as lowering air pollution levels will lead to enormous improvements in public health for people of all ages. We fully support the efforts.
New World Health Organisation (WHO) Air Quality Guidelines Endorsed by Over 100 Scientific Societies