WHO Releases Stricter, Updated Air Quality Guidelines After 16 Years

·7-min read

World Health Organization (WHO) on Wednesday, 22 September, released their revised Air Quality Guidelines for the first time after 16 years.

Published in 2005, the first air quality guidelines provided an assessment of health impacts of air pollution and set thresholds for key pollutants which pose risks for health.

While these guidelines are not legally binding, governments across the world may base their own standards on the WHO measures.

The new recommendations for air quality standards may represent a turning point in the way we approach air pollution globally.

Lauri Myllyvirta, who is the Lead Analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), said that these guidelines are "much needed" and added, "It's now essential for governments to align their national air quality standards with the new guidelines and put in place plans to meet them."

Advocating for the "much-needed" revisions, she stated, "Meeting the current guideline everywhere in the world would do little to protect the estimated 4 million children per year that develop asthma due to NO2 exposure."

Guidelines

The recommended annual standard of PM2.5 concentration has been decreased from 10 µg/m3 to 5 µg/m3, while the daily standard has dipped from 25 µg/m3 to 15 µg/m3, suggesting a stricter monitoring of air pollution levels across the globe.

Ravindra Khaiwal, Professor of Environment Health from the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education & Research, states, "This is important and would bring the focus on strict and swift action for better air quality. Air pollution has become a major risk factor for premature mortality and morbidity."

The annual and daily standard of the PM10 pollutant was also decreased by 10 µg/m3, shifting from 20 µg/m3, to 15 µg/m3, and 50 µg/m3 to 45 µg/m3, respectively.

The following table demonstrates the shift in the suggested air pollution thresholds from 2005 to 2021:

Air Pollution in South Asia

In South Asia, which records consistently high air pollution levels and is already witnessing glaring pollution-related health implications, the WHO guidelines have been viewed as bringing renewed interest in the topic and creating an opportunity to push for stronger action.

Arun Sharma, the Director of National Institute for Implementation Research of Non-Communicable Diseases in Indian Council of Medical Research, says,

""WHO by reducing the PM2.5 and 10 exposure levels under the new AQG has reemphasised the need for putting in more efforts to control particulate matter concentration in air. But for countries like India, it is a huge challenge to meet these guidelines. Nonetheless I hope that efforts by all stakeholders will be intensified so as to make honest efforts to aim towards the revised levels.”" - Dr Arun Sharma

While over 90% of the world’s population lives in areas that exceed the key air pollutant limits set by the WHO, in South Asia, almost all the population lives in these conditions.

On 7 September, nearly 100,000 health representatives from four South Asian counties – India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal – called for a phase-out of fossil fuels to win against the twin challenge of air pollution and climate crisis on the occasion of the second International Day for Clean Air and Blue Skies.

Aaron Bernstein, Interim Director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, stresses that the health gains we can achieve from getting off fossil fuels are enormous.

He says, "Air pollution from burning fossil fuels is responsible for 1 in 5 deaths worldwide. It causes children to have asthma, it causes pneumonia, it causes pregnant women to have babies born prematurely and with more birth defects, and it’s increasing the risk of people who are dying from COVID-19 right now."

In the last 16 years, multiple scientific studies have demonstrated the harm caused by poor air quality.

Health Impacts

Considered the greatest environmental hazard to health, air pollution also disproportionately affects vulnerable populations; a Lancet study states that 91% of deaths from ambient air pollution occur in low-income and middle-income countries.

Arvind Kumar, the founder of Lung Care Foundation, has called the effects of air pollution a "public health emergency" with the worst impact of the crisis being seen on South Asian countries.

Further, according to a study by Harvard University, air pollution from fossil fuels is responsible for one in five deaths worldwide and collectively accounts for a staggering 8.7 million deaths in 2018 alone.

Children are also especially vulnerable in the face of this growing environmental danger, as exposure to air pollution in early developmental years can lead to reduced lung capacity.

Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, the WHO advocate for health and clean air, states, "Air pollution stunts children's health and future - it causes premature birth, life-threatening asthma, cognitive problems, childhood cancer and so many other problems. There is no safe level of air pollution to breathe, but at least following the WHO's new air quality guidelines will improve children's health and set us on the path to achieving clean air for all."

According to a paper published by European Society of Cardiology, approximately 15% of the deaths from COVID-19 have been linked to PM2.5 air pollution globally.

Where India Stands

Last updated in 2009, India's air pollution standards are more relaxed in comparison to WHO's prescribed guidelines as well as standards set by other Asian countries.

As per the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) data from 2019, 116,000 infant had died due to air pollution, 100,000 deaths were caused by coal combustion, and around 16.7 lakh Indians had died because of ambient air pollution.

According to the analysis by Greenpeace India, among 100 global cities, Delhi's annual PM2.5 trends in 2020 were 17 times more than WHO's 2021 air quality guidelines of 5 ug/m3, while Mumbai's were eight times more than the present recommended limit.

Calculating premature deaths and financial losses due to air pollution for 10 cities across the world, Delhi accounted for the maximum number of deaths – 57,000 in the year 2020 – and 14% loss in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) owing to air pollution.

While GDP percentage share was highest amongst cities, the cost per capita was low in comparison to other cities which have higher per capita income and accumulated losses.

Action Taken

Meanwhile, the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) in the country has aimed to reduce 20-30% of PM2.5 and PM10 concentrations recorded in 2017 by 2024.

Khaiwal states,

""Meeting the new WHO Global Air Quality Guidelines seems a challenge, but under National Clean Air Program (NCAP), India is committed to minimize 20-30% of cities' air pollution. Collective efforts are needed to mitigate the air pollution and gain in terms of better human health and climate.”" - Dr Ravindra Khaiwal

Integrating the top 10 cities from WHO's most polluted cities' list, 122 non-attainment cities were identified for NCAP, which did not meet India's National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) in 2011-15.

NAAQS standards were notified by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) to ensure "protection of health", among other reasons.

According to Poornima Prabhakaran, the Deputy Director at Center for Environmental Health, Public Health Foundation of India, the newer WHO guidelines "necessitate a greater focus on health impacts of air pollution during the proposed revision of India’s NAAQS in 2022.”

Prabhakaran noted, "India’s existing National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) were already less stringent compared to previous air quality guidelines by WHO, allowing cities to consider an incremental approach to achieving interim targets through assessment of local sources of air pollution."

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