Underrating the quality of the air we breathe seems to have caught up with us as newly published data by WHO shows that 99% of the air we breathe exceeds WHO’s guideline limits and contains pollutants that can cause millions of preventable fatalities.
According to a study of air pollution data from 117 countries covering over 6,000 cities, WHO concluded that 99 percent of the world’s population is currently breathing air that violates the recently revised safety guidelines. The report is appalling as the damage statistically covers 80% of urban locations worldwide.
Aside from the well-known CO2, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) from industrial boilers, power plans, and even vehicles generate the main concerns in this report. When inhaled into our lungs, these gaseous pollutants can cause irritations in airway tissues, leading to inflammations, allergies, or even worse, asthma and reduced lung efficiency.
Things get even more frightening when we think of the impact of NO2 in increasing the risk of some childhood diseases and infirmities like childhood asthma and lower weight in newborns. Not only are newborns affected, but it’s also associated with cardiovascular and respiratory diseases in adults.
These gaseous pollutants are not all we’ve got to worry about; inhaling particulate matter (PM) in the air, which constitutes different substances, including natural desert dust and microplastics, which also have adverse effects on the climate. It’s an alarming situation considering we haven’t yet added pollutants from cooking fires, industrial waste, agricultural activities, wildfires, and fossil fuels to the list.
WHO’s attempts to study the situation
As of writing, WHO currently monitors particulate matter with a diameter of 10 μm (PM2.5 or PM10); according to the study, most particulate matter, especially PM2.5, can penetrate the lungs and enter the bloodstream, causing cardiovascular diseases or promoting cerebrovascular accidents (stroke). Also, some leading evidence (not mentioned in this article) suggests particulate matter can harm other organs, causing other diseases.
The report also claims that less than 25 percent of people across 4,000 cities breathe NO2 levels within the safety guidelines set by WHO. Although it remains unclear the levels of NO2 present in developed countries relative to developing nations, we understand that developing nations struggle with higher levels of particulate matter – with the highest levels of PM2.5 and PM10 being recorded in China and India, respectively.
IQAir turing in an even much worse report for 2021
In March 2022, a report was published by IQAir, which also supports the claims by WHO regarding toxicity levels of PM2.5 found worldwide.
The IQAir analysis suggested that wildfires caused by climate change were a major contributor to the spike in PM2.5 air pollution experienced in the US compared to what was recorded in 2020. Communities with underemployment usually had the most cases of air pollution in the US, with Los Angeles holding the worst record.
On the bright side, there seemed to be some improvement in China as many cities were in line with the WHO guidelines, even though they still have a long way to go from being a pollution-free country. In addition, developing countries seem to be the most affected by pollution through household heating systems and industrial processes.
CEO of IQAIR, Frank Hammes, says, “It is a shocking fact that no major city or country is providing safe and healthy air to their citizens according to the latest World Health Organization air quality guideline,”
He further emphasized taking immediate action, incorrect the findings from the report, adding that a lot needs to be done before everyone has safe, clean, and healthy air to breathe.
At any rate, both studies suggest that exposure to these pollutants predisposes almost all humans to heart diseases, strokes, lung disease, and even cancer. More so, WHO’s analysis highlights that ambient air pollution from PM2.5 was the cause of about 4.5 million premature deaths in 2016.
According to WHO, harmful emissions from fossil fuels can be linked to acute and chronic sicknesses. Also, the healthiness of humans gets worse if we start to factor in bush fires and dust storms from climate change—the WHO then concluded by urging industries to cut down their dependencies and use of these fossil fuels.
What are the possible solutions?
Solving the pollution crisis is more or less the same way to solve the ambient climate crisis: we should switch to cleaner sources of renewable energy, implement sustainable models in agriculture, and, most importantly, use more public transportation together with electric cars.
WHO’s Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, emphasized that speeding up the transition to cleaner sources of energy is the key to a healthier energy system and, ultimately, a healthier world. He further stressed that the issues with high-priced fossil fuels, energy security, and health challenges from air pollution and climate change are more than enough reasons to quicken the transition.
Despite the emergence of much cheaper and healthier forms of energy, the world is still reluctant to consider fossil fuels the most convenient option for energy generation. It remains to be seen if humanity will finally make that complete transition and stop paying for energy sources that endanger its existence.