The United Nations has said that air pollution is still killing millions of people every year, particularly in poorer countries.

Of the seven million people killed every year from breathing polluted air, around 90% are in low and middle income countries, according to the World Health Organization.

Statistics like that prompted the UN General Assembly, in 2019, to adopt a resolution designating 7 September as the International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, stressing the urgent need to raise public awareness at all levels, and to promote and facilitate actions to improve air quality.

Now, WHO scientists have concluded that the impact of air pollution kicks in at a much lower level than previously thought, prompting the question of whether the international community taking the issue seriously and what can be done to tackle it.

Multi-year process

Nathan Borgford-Parnell, co-ordinator of science affairs at the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, a grouping that is hosted by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), said: “Air quality has not improved dramatically over the last decade and the World Health Organization, using a very rigorous multi-year process, put out new ambient air quality guidelines last year, which cut the level at which fine particulate matter affects health by half (from 10 microns to five microns).

“The populations [in low- and middle-income countries] have particular vulnerabilities, linked to the technologies they use for cooking, for heating their homes, for transportation, and the kind of energy that is often used. Also, there are factors related to the age of populations, and the very young and the very old are particularly vulnerable, often without means and access to healthcare.” 

He added: “What concerns me is that we may not get enough people to recognise that there is no separation between air pollution and climate change. Wildfires are human-driven, yet some people try to act as if they’re natural occurrences.

“But the precipitous increase in wildfires in recent years, and the modelling that says that we’re going to continue to see them increasing all over the world in places we couldn’t have ever imagined them, shows us that climate change will directly impact the burden of disease from air pollution caused by the wildfires. 

“And air pollution impacts the climate,” Borgford-Parnell insisted: “There are no air pollutants that do not impact the climate. None. Greenhouse gases, aerosols, pollutants, they all impact the climate. The links between air pollution and climate change are legion and increasing. However, the great benefit of the fact that these things are linked, and we can combine the climate and the air quality issues in the public health communities, and push them towards solutions that achieve benefits for all.

“That is the empowering message of the Climate and Clean air Coalition, and why people have been so excited to be with us for the last decade.”

Air pollution; “no longer a blame game”

Martina Otto, head of the secretariat at the Climate and Clean Air Coalition added: “Air pollution has often been seen as a very local, national problem. There have been efforts by a lot of countries to bring down emissions, but definitely not at the level that is needed. 

“And since pollutants are travelling in the air, and often for long distances, we can’t solve this by isolated measures. It’s the air we share, and that means we also have to share the solutions. It’s no longer a blame game. It’s about looking together at the solutions, which lie in co-operation. It’s a sustainable development issue: the very thing that keeps all of us alive and breathing makes us sick as well.” 

Image: Air pollution in Dhaka, Bangladesh, is leading to a series of health problems for the city’s inhabitants. Credit: UNICEF/Habibul Haque.