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Updated WHO air quality guidelines ‘step in right direction’

Majority of levels adjusted downwards with new warning
30 September 2021 , Steve Smethurst

CIEH has welcomed the publication of updated Global Air Quality Guidelines (AQGs) by the World Health Organization (WHO). The AQG levels, last updated in 2005, have been adjusted after a systematic review of accumulated evidence.

According to WHO, there is clear evidence that the damage air pollution inflicts on human health happens at even lower concentrations than understood at the time of its last global update.

The revised recommendations are contained in its new WHO Global Air Quality Guidelines just released. In the report, almost all AQGs levels on particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5), ozone (O3), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2) and carbon monoxide (CO) have been adjusted downwards, with a warning that exceeding the new air quality guideline levels is associated with significant risks.

PM10 and PM2.5 are both primarily generated by fuel combustion and are capable of penetrating the lungs. PM2.5 can also enter the bloodstream, with cardiovascular and respiratory impacts.

The new limit for NO2, mainly produced by diesel engines, is 75% lower than before.

Evidence shows that poor air quality contributes to illnesses such as cancer, stroke, asthma and heart disease, and there are strong associations with chronic conditions such as obesity, dementia and diabetes. These conditions are on the rise in the UK, and the most vulnerable, for example children and the elderly, are at most risk. The Department of Health’s Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants has reported that long-term exposure to poor air quality currently causes as many as 40,000 additional deaths per year. The flip side is that WHO estimates 80% of deaths related to PM2.5 could be avoided in the world if current air pollution levels were reduced to those proposed in the updated guidelines.

Last year, a coroner attributed the 2013 death of nine-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah in part to being exposed to levels of PM2.5 and NO2 in excess of limits set by the WHO. CIEH President Julie Barratt commented that: “The report into Ella’s death should be a wake-up call. Action has to be taken. We cannot afford to miss this opportunity.”

CIEH welcomed the new measures but said it was not enough for the WHO limits on PM2.5 to “inform ambitions” going forwards, and that they must be legally binding.

The organisation has been working as part of the Healthy Air Campaign (HAC) coalition of charities and public health organisations to amend the Environment Bill. The amendment, which would commit the government to reaching WHO levels on air quality by 2030, was successfully passed by peers.

CIEH Director for Northern Ireland Gary McFarlane said: “These new guidelines are a reminder of how important air quality is to public health, and that the UK government still has a way to go to improve air quality.

“CIEH will continue to work with its partners in the HAC to help the UK government improve air quality around the UK and lessen the negative health effects that can be attributed to air pollution. With the amendment to the Environment Bill, there is movement in the right direction that will improve public health and help mitigate climate change.”

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