A new study released by the WHO has shown that at least 90% of the world’s population is now exposed to air containing an unhealthy level of pollutants. In the largest study to date, the organisation collected data from 4300 cities and 108 countries to highlight “pollution hotspots” around the world, and to call on countries to take action in protecting the public from the risks associated with breathing unhealthy air.

Particle pollution, which includes chemicals like sulfate, nitrate and black carbon is mostly caused by vehicle emissions, manufacturing, power plants and farming. At high levels, it can lead to an array of health problems, including asthma, lung cancer, strokes, heart disease and COPD. According to the WHO, this type of pollution contributed to 4.2 million deaths in 2016 globally.

Dr. Maria Neira, director of the WHO’s Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health said:  “I’m afraid what is dramatic is that air pollution levels still remain at dangerously high levels in many parts of the world. Many of the world’s megacities exceed WHO’s guideline levels for air quality by more than five times, representing a major risk to people’s health.”

She added: “No doubt that air pollution represents today not only the biggest environmental risk for health, but I will clearly say that this is a major, major challenge for public health at the moment and probably one of the biggest ones we are contemplating.”

In Europe and America, a number of large cities showed levels of pollution that were considered unhealthy by the WHO’s guidelines. Some of these cities were Los Angeles, Bakersfield and Fresno, California and Indianapolis. However, the highest levels of pollution were found in Asia and Africa; around 90% of air pollution deaths were found in these areas. Cities like Peshawar and Rawalpindi in Pakistan, Varanasi and Kanpur in India, Cairo in Egypt and Al Jubail in Saudi Arabia showed some of the highest levels across the database.

Although many countries are now monitoring air pollution levels and trying to address the levels of emissions from vehicles and manufacturing, the WHO say more attention needs to be paid to pollution from people’s homes. In developing regions, this is still a large source of air pollution; 40% of the world’s population still don’t have access to clean technology, resulting in the use of charcoal or wood to cook and heat homes.

Kevin McConway, an emeritus professor of applied statistics at the Open University said that the report is “generally an impressive piece of work and demonstrated clearly the huge global impact of air pollution. While we do still need to continue to take action on air pollution in richer Western cities like London, the position is far worse in lower- and middle-income countries and in many other parts of the world.”

Dr. Anthony Frew, who specializes in allergy and respiratory medicine at Royal Sussex County Hospital added: “This report is a timely reminder that we in the West need to remember that we are lucky to live where we do, but our prosperity is built, in part, on polluting industries elsewhere in the world, which impact on other people’s health.”

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