The global assessment of air quality by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on Wednesday revealed that a shocking nine out of ten of the world’s population is living in areas with polluted air which levels breaching limits recommended by the WHO.

The model derived information from satellite measurements, air transport models and ground stations that measure hazardous particulate matter of diameters less than 2.5 micrometres, or PM2.5. In instances where accurate measurements were not available, crude data was derived based on levels of large dust particles, PM10. Such fine particles, like sulphate and black carbon, are small enough to potentially permeate the lungs and circulatory system, and are hazardous to human health.

The detailed report, which was based on data from 3,000 urban and rural locations worldwide, points the finger at air pollution for being a major cause of millions of deaths per annum.

“Some 3 million deaths a year are linked to exposure to outdoor air pollution,” stated WHO in the report. “Indoor air pollution can be just as deadly. In 2012, an estimated 6.5 million deaths (11.6% of all global deaths) were associated with indoor and outdoor air pollution together.”

Earlier this year in May, the UN body released The Global Urban Ambient Air Pollution Database, stating that over 80% of urban folks are breathing air of substandard quality that fail to meet minimum recommended safety levels.

While most acute in cities, air in rural areas is worse than many think

While all regions of the world are affected, approximately 90% of mortality linked with air-pollution is from low and middle-income countries, with Southeast Asia and western Pacific regions accounting for two-thirds of deaths.

The report published figures for 2012 by country, with more than one million deaths attributed to air pollution reported in China, and over 600,000 in India. However, when ranked by number of deaths per 100,000 capita, Ukraine tops the list at 120.

Closer to home, 6,251 and 1,094 deaths related to air-pollution were reported in Malaysia and Singapore respectively, with both countries comparably recording around 20 deaths for every 100,000 people.
Countries like Brunei Darussalam, Fiji and Vanuatu have the lowest number of deaths from air pollution, the WHO found.

While the report states that air in lower income nations are more polluted than in developed countries, head of WHO’s department of public health and environment, Dr Maria Neira stressed that the pollution “affects practically all countries in the world and all parts of society.”

"Urban air pollution continues to rise at an alarming rate, wreaking havoc on human health," Neira said, adding that the current situation is a public health emergency.

According to the report, almost all air pollution-related deaths are due to non-communicable diseases, particularly cardiovascular diseases and stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer.

WHO: No excuses for not taking action

According to Dr Patrick Kinney, professor of Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia University, fine air pollution particles affect human health “similar to the way cigarette smoking affects people.”

Major sources contributing to air pollution include household fuel and waste burning, coal-fired power plants as well as industrial activities, according to the WHO. However, air quality can also be affected by natural causes such as dust storms in regions that are located closer to deserts.

“Countries are confronted with the reality of better data. Now we have the figures of how many citizens are dying from air pollution. What we are learning is, this is very bad. Now there are no excuses for not taking action,” said Neira as she urged governments to implement policies that will improve waste management and promote clean fuels.

In response to the dire situation, the BreatheLife air pollution campaign is being led by WHO and the United nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to stress on implementation on practical policy measures to reduce air pollution by improving waste management and promoting renewable sources of energy.

“Air pollution is the world’s biggest environmental risk to health and must be addressed on a priority basis as it continues to rise, causing long lasting disease and illness,” said a WHO Southeast Asian region statement.  MIMS

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