The World Health Organization has just released a new—alarming—report suggesting that upwards of 90 percent of the human population lives in areas that have unsafe levels of pollution. The research, of course, underscores the increasing risk that air pollution poses to nearly every single human demographic. According to the WHO, more than 6 million people died in 2012 as a result of ailments caused by or related to air pollution.
“Air pollution continues take a toll on the health of the most vulnerable populations — women, children and the older adults,” explains WHO assistant director general Flavia Bustre. “For people to be healthy, they must breathe clean air from their first breath to their last.”
This new study looks at a mixture of tiny particulates that constitute pollution throughout 3,000 cities and towns across the planet. Sure enough, unsafe air pollution levels appear to affect every region tracked in the study; of course, some areas are worse than others. For example, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East appear to be facing the worst levels of air pollution. In addition, higher income countries tend to fare better—and by a wide margin—than low- and middle-income counterparts, where 90 percent of global [air pollution-related] deaths occur.
The WHO report suggests, “Based on the modeled data, 92% of the world population are exposed to PM2.5 air pollution concentrations that are above the annual mean [WHO guidelines]. With the exception of the region of the Americas, all regions …have less than 20% of the population living in places in compliance with [WHO standards].”
It is an important study, of course, as it also could suggest that while higher-income countries are producing a higher amount of air pollution, the lower-income countries are certainly suffering more of the risk. Accordingly, WHO air pollution team leader Carlos Dora comments, “Air pollution is improving in rich countries, but it’s still getting worse in most developing countries.” This is largely because richer countries are getting better at improving air quality.
Dora goes on to explain: “People think of air pollution as a respiratory disease. And in fact, it’s heart disease, strokes and cardiovascular. Because there’s very small particles that go into the blood. … The damage air pollution does to the vessels is similar to the damage that cholesterol or high blood pressure do. That has changed a lot of the picture.”