New air quality guidelines published on Wednesday by the World Health Organization could prevent millions of deaths globally each year, the UN agency said.
Fine particulate matter, or PM 2.5, is the tiniest pollutant yet also among the most dangerous. When inhaled, it travels deep into lung tissue where it can enter the bloodstream and can contribute to asthma, cardiovascular disease and other respiratory illnesses. The new guidelines, which hadn’t been updated in 15 years, recommend the concentration of this harmful substance be halved in the world’s air, from 10 micrograms per cubic meter to 5. In 2016, around 4.1 million premature deaths — more than half of the total deaths attributable to air quality issues — were associated with fine particulate matter. If the new 2021 air quality guidelines had been applied then, there could have been a nearly 80% reduction in PM 2.5-related premature deaths, or 3.3 million fewer deaths, according to the UN agency.
The guidelines, which are designed to help governments craft air quality regulations, also include other major health and climate-damaging pollutants, both outdoor and indoor, such as PM 10 — particulate matter larger than PM 2.5 — as well as ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide. The report comes as world leaders meet in New York for the 76th United Nations General Assembly to tackle the twin crises of the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change. Dorota Jarosińska, the international agency’s technical lead, who helped develop the new global guidelines, called the new update a “triple-win scenario,” as it not only protects public health and improves air quality, but also mitigates the climate crisis.
“These guidelines reinforce the need for urgent action that would benefit the health of all, including vulnerable populations,” Jarosińska told CNN. “This creates a triple-win scenario for the benefit of air quality, climate action and health, and is one of the elements postulated by WHO Manifesto for a healthy recovery from Covid-19.” The latest guidelines also support recent research that found air pollution is most likely a contributing factor to health burden caused by Covid-19. Fine particulate matter comes from sources like the burning of fossil fuels, wildfires and agriculture, and is linked to a number of health complications including asthma, heart disease, chronic bronchitis, and other respiratory illnesses — all underlying conditions that make people vulnerable to severe outcomes from Covid-19.