The United Nations World Health Organization gave a grim assessment of the global air pollution situation on Thursday. Around 98 percent of the residents of cities in low to middle income countries are breathing a level of pollution that negatively impacts health.
“Ambient air pollution, made of high concentrations of small and fine particulate matter, is the greatest environmental risk to health — causing more than 3 million premature deaths worldwide ever year,” WHO said.
The announcement is the result of data from WHO’s third Global Urban Ambient Air Pollution Database. The outdoor air of 3,000 cities, towns and villages, but mostly cities, across 103 different countries was examined and the information put into the database. While there was improvement in some areas, the overall level of urban pollution on a global level increased by 8 percent between 2008 and 2013.
Higher levels of air pollution have been found to have negative effects not only on respiratory health but also cardiac health. People exposed to consistent levels of excessive pollution have a higher risk of strokes, heart disease and lung cancer. There is even research suggesting high pollution has negative psychological impacts. According to research presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, air pollution caused 1.6 million premature deaths in China alone in 2013. The University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health linked some 2,000 premature deaths in Hong Kong to air pollution.
As dismal as the situation looks, there is reason to hope it can be changed. New Delhi, which used to be the most polluted city on the planet, now stands at 9th place on the list. Through implementing a series of regulations such as fines for construction pollution and shutting down a coal-fired power plant, the city was able to decrease its annual average concentration of particulate matter by 20 percent over the course of just one year.
“Urban air pollution continues to rise at an alarming rate, wreaking havoc on human health,” said Dr. Maria Neira, a WHO director for environment and public health. “At the same time, awareness is rising and more cities are monitoring their air quality. When air quality improves, global respiratory and cardiovascular-related illnesses decrease.”