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Even low levels of air pollutants can cause significant damage to human health: WHO

World Health Day 2022: A new WHO data shows that billions of people across the world still breathe unhealthy air. And, people living in lower and middle-income countries are the most exposed to air pollution.

ByIFP Bureau

Updated 8 Apr 2022, 9:44 am

(Photo: IFP)
(Photo: IFP)

As World Health Day 2022 is observed in countries across the world on Thursday, April 7, 2022 with the theme – “Our planet, our health,” the WHO says that almost the entire global population (99%) breathes air that exceeds WHO air quality limits, and threatens their health. Its report stated that even low levels of air pollutants can cause significant damage to human health. The WHO estimates that over 13 million deaths around the world each year are due to avoidable environmental causes.

The WHO stated that World Health Day, marked on 7 April, will focus global attention on urgent actions needed to keep humans and the planet healthy and foster a movement to create societies focused on well-being.

“Current energy concerns highlight the importance of speeding up the transition to cleaner, healthier energy systems… 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,” Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, said.

People living in 6,000 cities in 117 countries are still breathing unhealthy air

The WHO says that people living in lower and middle-income countries are the most exposed to air pollution. They are also the least covered in terms of air quality measurement, it pointed out.

A record number of over 6000 cities in 117 countries are now monitoring air quality, but the people living in them are still breathing unhealthy levels of fine particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide, with people in low and middle-income countries suffering the highest exposures, the WHO said in a release. Some 2,000 more cities/human settlements are now recording ground monitoring data for particulate matter, PM10 and/or PM2.5, than the last update.

The 2022 update of the World Health Organization’s air quality database, which was launched in 2011, and released in the lead-up to World Health Day, introduces, for the first time, ground measurements of annual mean concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a common urban pollutant and precursor of particulate matter and ozone. It also includes measurements of particulate matter with diameters equal or smaller than 10 μm (PM10) or 2.5 μm (PM2.5).  Both groups of pollutants originate mainly from human activities related to fossil fuel combustion, the WHO stated.

The WHO stated in its update that the evidence base for the damage air pollution does to the human body has been growing rapidly and points to significant harm caused by even low levels of many air pollutants.


Particulate matter, especially PM2.5, is capable of penetrating deep into the lungs and entering the bloodstream, causing cardiovascular, cerebrovascular (stroke) and respiratory impacts. There is emerging evidence that particulate matter impacts other organs and causes other diseases as well.

NO2 is associated with respiratory diseases, particularly asthma, leading to respiratory symptoms (such as coughing, wheezing or difficulty breathing), hospital admissions and visits to emergency rooms.

Higher income countries see lower particulate pollution, but most cities have trouble with nitrogen dioxide, the WHO stated. It stated: In the 117 countries monitoring air quality, the air in 17% of cities in high-income countries fall below the WHO’s Air Quality Guidelines for PM2.5 or PM 10.  In low- and middle-income countries, air quality in less than 1% of the cities complies with WHO recommended thresholds.

Globally, low- and middle-income countries still experience greater exposure to unhealthy levels of PM compared to the global average, but NO2 patterns are different, showing less difference between the high- and low- and middle-income countries.

About 4000 cities/human settlements in 74 countries collect NO2 data at ground level. Aggregated, their measurements show that only 23% of people in these places breathe annual average concentrations of NO2 that meet levels in the recently updated version of WHO’s Air Quality Guidelines.

Building safe and affordable public transport systems and pedestrian, and cycle-friendly networks was included in the revised WHO Air Quality Guidelines 2021, which calls for a rapid intensification of actions to:

1. Adopt or revise and implement national air quality standards according to the latest WHO Air Quality Guidelines

2. Monitor air quality and identify sources of air pollution

3. Support the transition to exclusive use of clean household energy for cooking, heating and lighting


4. Build safe and affordable public transport systems and pedestrian- and cycle-friendly networks

5. Implement stricter vehicle emissions and efficiency standards; and enforce mandatory inspection and maintenance for vehicle

6. Invest in energy-efficient housing and power generation

7. Improve industry and municipal waste management

8. Reduce agricultural waste incineration, forest fires and certain agro-forestry activities (e.g. charcoal production)

9. Include air pollution in curricula for health professionals and providing tools for the health sector to engage.

 “After surviving a pandemic, it is unacceptable to still have 7 million preventable deaths and countless preventable lost years of good health due to air pollution. That’s what we’re saying when we look at the mountain of air pollution data, evidence, and solutions available. Yet too many investments are still being sunk into a polluted environment rather than in clean, healthy air,” said Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director, Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health.

The 2022 database aims to monitor the state of the world’s air and feeds into progress tracking of the Sustainable Development Goals.


First published:7 Apr 2022, 6:20 am


pollutionwhohealthair qualityworld health day 2022

IFP Bureau

IFP Bureau

IMPHAL, Manipur


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