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UN health agency sets higher, tougher bar for air quality

Chinese President Xi Jinping announced on Sept. 21 that China will no longer fund power plants fired by coal, which generates several of the pollutants covered by the guidelines.

September 22, 2021  by Associated Press

The harmful health effects of air pollution kick in at lower levels than previously thought, the World Health Organization said on Sept. 22 as it set a new standard for policymakers and the public in the first update of its air quality guidelines in 15 years.

The U.N. health agency released its revised guidance as climate change is a leading topic at the U.N. General Assembly in New York. Chinese President Xi Jinping announced on Sept. 21 that China will no longer fund power plants fired by coal, which generates several of the pollutants covered by the guidelines.

Since the last update of the WHO recommendations, better monitoring and science have cleared up the global picture about the effects of six major air pollutants on human health. According to the agency, 90% of the world’s people already live in areas with at least one particularly harmful type of pollutant.

“There is nothing more essential for life than air quality,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters. “And yet, because of air pollution, the simple act of breathing contributes to 7 million deaths a year. Almost everyone around the world is exposed to unhealthy levels of air pollution.”

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Air pollution is now comparable to other global health risks like unhealthy diets and smoking tobacco, WHO said. It is recognized “as the single biggest environmental threat to human health,” Dr. Dorota Jarosinska, WHO Europe program manager for living and working environments, said.

The guidelines, which are not legally binding and intended as a reference for policymakers, advocacy groups and academics, change the advised concentrations of six pollutants known to have impacts on health: two types of particulate matter known as PM 2.5 and PM 10, as well as ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide.

A key U.N. climate summit is set to take place in Glasgow, Scotland, in six weeks.

While developed countries and some developing ones have set standards for air quality, a report from the U.N.’s environment program earlier this month found that one-third of the world’s countries have no legally mandated standards for the quality of outdoor air. Many of those are in Africa and the Western Pacific.

Over the last 20 years, air quality has improved in places where policies for reducing pollutant emissions have been enforced, including Europe, the United States and Canada, said Vincent-Henri Peuch, director of the European Union’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service.

China has seen improvements too. But air quality has deteriorated in many other parts of the world, especially in low-income countries, Peuch said.

There are areas that offer promise. Experts note improvements through the retirement of old cars and their replacement with models that emit less nitrogen dioxide or run on batteries.