New WHO data reveals air pollution hot spots

by Ray Clancy on October 3, 2016

Moving abroad for health reasons is becoming increasingly popular, particularly among those who are close to or retired, but not every location may benefit their well-being, according to a new report.

Every year the World Health Organisation looks at air quality as it is well documented that air pollution can have a serious effect on health, especially among the older and younger member of the population.

Air PollutionThe latest report shows that 92% of the world’s population lives in places where air quality levels exceed WHO limits and lists the air pollution hot spots. It is the first time that WHO has given a country-by-country assessment.

China, which has seen a large rise in its expat population, tops the list as having the worst air pollution levels, followed by India and then Russia. The figures reveal that a million people died from dirty air in China in 2012, 600,000 in India and more than 140,000 in Russia.

But countries popular with expats such as the UK, France, Germany, and the United States are not as clean as many might expect. The UK, for example, ranks 25 out of 184 countries with 16,355 deaths from air pollution in 2012. France has 10,954 deaths and Germany 26,160, while in the United States it was 38,043. But Australia might just be the place to go with only 94 deaths from poor air quality.

WHO believes that countries should take more action to clean up. France is one that is doing so. Cars are to be banned along a stretch of the River Seine. ‘Fighting pollution is one of my top priorities. It is a vital public health issue, said Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo.

Around the world 16 scientists from eight international institutions worked with WHO on the analysis which gathered data from 3,000 locations, using pollution monitors on the ground in rural and urban areas, modelling and satellite readings.

According to Gavin Shaddick, who led the international team that put together the data, air pollution presents a major risk to public health and a substantial number of lives could be saved if levels of air pollution were reduced.

‘The new WHO model shows countries where the air pollution danger spots are, and provides a baseline for monitoring progress in combatting it,’ said Dr Flavia Bustreo, assistant director general at WHO.

WHO says that some three million deaths a year are linked to exposure to outdoor air pollution but that indoor air pollution can be just as deadly. In 2012, an estimated 6.5 million deaths, or 11.6% of all global deaths, were associated with indoor and outdoor air pollution together.

‘Air pollution continues take a toll on the health of the most vulnerable populations, women, children and the older adults. For people to be healthy, they must breathe clean air from their first breath to their last,’ added Bustreo.

Major sources of air pollution include inefficient modes of transport, household fuel and waste burning, coal fired power plants, and industrial activities. However, not all air pollution originates from human activity. For example, air quality can also be influenced by dust storms, particularly in regions close to deserts.

Dr Maria Neira, WHO director of its Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, believes more is being done. ‘More and more cities are monitoring air pollution now, satellite data is more comprehensive, and we are getting better at refining the related health estimates,’ she explained.

‘Fast action to tackle air pollution can’t come soon enough. Solutions exist with sustainable transport in cities, solid waste management, access to clean household fuels and cook-stoves, as well as renewable energies and industrial emissions reductions,’ she added.

In September 2015, world leaders set a target within the Sustainable Development Goals of substantially reducing the number of deaths and illnesses from air pollution by 2030. In May 2016, WHO approved a new road map for accelerated action on air pollution and its causes. The roadmap calls upon the health sector to increase monitoring of air pollution locally, assess the health impacts, and to assume a greater leadership role in national policies that affect air pollution.

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