- The fifth WHO air quality database covers over 6000 cities in 117 countries
- Seven million preventable deaths are associated with air pollution: WHO
- Speed up the transition to cleaner, healthier energy systems: WHO Chief
New Delhi: The national capital Delhi is infamous for its annual problem of air pollution. Even today (April 6), PM2.5 levels in Delhi reached 103 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3), as per SAFAR (System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research). The WHO recommends that the 24-hour average of small and hazardous airborne particles known as PM2.5 should be no more than 15 µg/m3 after changing its guidelines in 2021. Similarly, PM10 concentration in Delhi is 254 µg/m3, five times the WHO recommendation of 45 µg/m3. Delhi is not the only city in India or the world to have polluted air. Almost the entire global population (99 per cent) breathes air that exceeds WHO air quality limits, and threatens their health, reveals the latest WHO data.
The fifth WHO air quality database covers over 6,000 cities in 117 countries, and indicates where air pollution levels and the related health risks are higher. The WHO report has been released ahead of World Health Day which will be celebrated this year with the theme of ‘Our Planet, Our Health’.
The report includes data on air pollutants such as particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10) and nitrogen dioxide – both of which are found in fossil fuel emissions and are blamed for some respiratory and heart conditions – for the years between 2010 and 2019. As per WHO, people continue to breathe unhealthy levels of pollutants with people in low and middle-income countries suffering the highest exposures.
Understanding Air Pollutants
PM10 pollutants are particles equal to 10 microns or one-tenth of the diameter of a human hair. PM10 and sizes above get filtered at the level of the nose, through the body’s natural filter which does not allow the larger particles to go inside. These kinds of particles only cause irritation in the eyes, nose and throat.
PM2.5 particles measuring 2.5 microns or smaller in diameter are capable of penetrating deep into the lungs and entering the bloodstream, causing cardiovascular, cerebrovascular (stroke) and respiratory impacts. There is emerging evidence that particulate matter impacts other organs and causes other diseases as well, says WHO.
Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) is associated with respiratory diseases, particularly asthma, leading to respiratory symptoms (such as coughing, wheezing or difficulty in breathing), hospital admissions and visits to emergency rooms.
In view of the rising levels of air pollution, last year, WHO revised its Air Quality Guidelines, making them more stringent in an effort to help countries better evaluate the healthiness of their own air.
Findings Of WHO Air Quality Database
In the 117 countries monitoring air quality, the air in 17 per cent of cities in high-income countries fall below the WHO’s Air Quality Guidelines for PM2.5 or PM 10. On the other hand, in low-and middle-income countries, air quality in less than 1 per cent of the cities complies with WHO recommended thresholds.
Globally, low-and middle-income countries still experience greater exposure to unhealthy levels of PM compared to the global average.
About 4,000 cities in 74 countries collect NO2 data at ground level. Aggregated, their measurements show that only 23 per cent of people in these places breathe annual average concentrations of NO2 that meet levels in the recently updated version of WHO’s Air Quality Guidelines. The WHO says that the annual average for NO2 should be 10 µg/m3 and 24-hour average should be 25 µg/m3.
After surviving a pandemic, it is unacceptable to still have seven million preventable deaths and countless preventable lost years of good health due to air pollution. That’s what we’re saying when we look at the mountain of air pollution data, evidence, and solutions available. Yet too many investments are still being sunk into a polluted environment rather than in clean, healthy air, said Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director, Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health.
WHO’s Five-Point Guide To Improve Air Quality And Health
Through its report, the WHO is calling on governments to urgently take actions to improve air quality and in turn health as well. The WHO recommends five key steps in the fight against air pollution:
– Adopt or revise and implement national air quality standards according to the latest WHO Air Quality Guidelines
– Monitor air quality and identify sources of air pollution
– Support the transition to exclusive use of clean household energy for cooking, heating and lighting
– Build safe and affordable public transport systems and pedestrian-and cycle-friendly networks
– Implement stricter vehicle emissions and efficiency standards; and enforce mandatory inspection and maintenance for vehicles
The WHO has called for investment in energy-efficient housing and power generation; improving waste management; reducing agricultural waste incineration, forest fires and certain agro-forestry activities; including air pollution in curricula for health professionals and providing tools for the health sector to engage.
Is India On Track To Follow WHO’s Recommendations
Shambhavi Shukla, Deputy Programme Manager, Clean Air and Sustainable Mobility, Centre for Science and Environment believes the WHO report doesn’t provide any new information as the world is aware of the problem of air pollution. When asked what needs to be done to address the problem, especially in India, Ms Shukla said,
We are not in a position to assume that we have a year or two to act upon. We need a clean and green energy transition at a massive scale. Secondly, if we can move from conventional sources of energy to renewables like solar. Thirdly, electric vehicles are the future of internal combustion engines (ICE). These transitions should start immediately but, in India, they are at the bottom of the government’s agenda.
Ms Shukla further informed that under National Clean Air Programme (NCAP), various states had prepared action plans in 2019 but they haven’t been implemented yet. The money being allotted to NCAP is majorly used for controlling dust but there are other sources of air pollution that need our attention, she said.
Sunil Dahiya, Analyst, Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) believes there is a huge gap in the monitoring of air pollution levels in India. He suggested revising air quality standards and said,
Based on the recommendations from WHO, it is pertinent that we also revise our ambient air quality standards. We can’t keep ambitious targets like bringing down the annual average PM2.5 to 5 micrograms per cubic meter but, we can have targets like 25 micrograms per cubic meter in the next three years and ultimately, over a decade, reaching 5 micrograms per cubic meter. Also, in India, southern states have better air quality than northern states. It will make sense to have staggered targets and a systematic end goal of reaching the WHO stipulated limit.
Mr Dahiya also recommended strengthening public transport and non-motorised transport like cycling instead of shifting all the focus to electric vehicles and private vehicles. He also said that India has policies and schemes like providing clean cooking fuel and source apportionment studies but implementation is an issue.
In an official statement, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General also called for speeding up the transition to cleaner, healthier energy systems. This is not just for India, but the world. He said,
High fossil fuel prices, energy security, and the urgency of addressing the twin health challenges of air pollution and climate change, underscore the pressing need to move faster towards a world that is much less dependent on fossil fuels.
NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via the Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ population, indigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, which is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.