World Health Experts Warn Air Pollution Kills Two Million a Year

NEW YORK, New York, October 6, 2006 (ENS) - Air pollution in cities across the world is causing some two million premature deaths every year, the World Health Organization (WHO) said Thursday, urging nations to adopt stricter air pollution standards. The international health agency's new air quality guidelines call for nations to reduce the impact of air pollution by substantially cutting levels of particulate matter, ozone and sulfur dioxide.

"By reducing air pollution levels, we can help countries to reduce the global burden of disease from respiratory infections, heart disease, and lung cancer which they otherwise would be facing," said Maria Neira, WHO director of public health and the environment. "Moreover, action to reduce the direct impact of air pollution will also cut emissions of gases which contribute to climate change and provide other health benefits."

WHO cautioned that for some cities meeting the targets would require cutting current pollution levels more than three fold. The organization noted that many countries don't have any air pollution standards. Existing standards vary greatly, WHO said, and most fail to ensure sufficient protection of human health.

Particulate matter is the major concern, WHO said, and cutting this type of air pollution can produce the greatest health benefits.

Produced mainly by the burning of fossil fuels, particulate matter has been increasingly linked to respiratory illness and heart disease.


Air pollution is a major concern for cities worldwide - none moreso than China's Beijing. (Photo by Edwin Ewing, Jr. courtesy CDC)

Most cities currently have levels of coarse particulate matter - known as PM10 - in excess of 70 micrograms per cubic meter.

The guidelines recommend cutting levels of PM10 to 20 micrograms, a reduction WHO says can reduce deaths from air pollution by 15 percent a year.

WHO recommends cutting the daily limit for ozone, a key ingredient in smog, from 120 to 100 micrograms per cubic meter. The organization notes that this will pose a challenge for many cities, especially in developing countries, and particularly those with numerous sunny days when ozone concentrations are highest, causing respiratory problems and asthma attacks.

The guidelines call for reducing levels of sulfur dioxide from 125 to 20 micrograms per cubic meter and note that cutting this pollutant will result in lower childhood death and disease rates.

WHO first created air quality guidelines in 1987, but they were originally developed just to address pollution in Europe.

The guidelines were originally created to address only Europe but were expanded to focus on all regions and provide standardized targets for air quality.

WHO said the increasing evidence of the health impacts of air pollution prompted the organization to were expanded its guidelines to address all regions of the world and provide uniform targets for air quality

The new guidelines ere established after consultation with more than 80 leading scientists and are based on review of thousands of recent studies from all regions of the world.

Dr. Roberto Bertollini, European director of WHO's special program from health and environment, said the guidelines reflect the "most widely agreed and up-to-date assessment of health effects of air pollution, recommending targets for air quality at which the health risks are significantly reduced."

"We look forward to working with all countries to ensure these guidelines become part of national law," Bertollini added.