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25th Oct 2021

WHO makes major cut in 'safe' air-pollution levels

  • Air pollution is the world's fourth-leading cause of death (Photo: Skaja Lee)
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In a new study on Wednesday (22 September), the World Health Organization (WHO) found air pollution is even more damaging to human health than previously thought.

It is the first set of guidelines aimed at reducing air pollution the agency has published since 2005.

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"Air pollution is one of the leading causes of death," said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom in a press conference. More than 95 percent of the world's population are exposed to levels of air pollution that exceed even the old limits.

Tiny particles and gasses like sulphur, nitrogen dioxide and ozone from car emissions or power plants are damaging to human health. Reducing exposure is a priority, the WHO said.

The agency estimates around seven million premature deaths every year are due to the effects of air pollution, the world's fourth-leading cause of death, with more than 500,000 of those deaths occurring in Europe.

In the new report, safe limits are almost all adjusted downwards, compared with 16 years ago.

The 194 member states are advised to cut legal levels for tiny particles by half (from ten micrograms per cubic meter per year to five) and nitrogen dioxides from 40 down to ten microgrammes per cubic metre.

In response, the European Respiratory Society (ERS) warns that current legal limits in the EU are still too high.

"Safe levels for fine particulate matter exceed the new WHO limits five times, and safe EU levels for nitrogen dioxide are four times higher," said Zorana Andersen, chief of the ERS.

Although the European Environmental Agency confirmed a slight decrease in toxic NO2-levels between 2009 and 2018, on average, it is still three times higher than is defined safe by the WHO.

"EU governments should be scrambling to act," said Ugo Taddei from the environmental charity ClientEarth in a response. "European legal limits are systematically exceeded, meaning citizens are exposed to toxic pollution."

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