Many have known for years that air pollution is a problem, but few understand just how pervasive the issue is. Polluted and toxic air contributes to breathing and allergy ailments, and it has been linked to certain cancers, chronic illnesses, and diseases. Now, a recent study from the World Health Organization has discovered that approximately 80 percent of people who live in cities and urban areas are breathing in polluted air. It’s not just those in the United States who are affected, but people in cities around the world.
The World Health Organization covered cities in 67 countries in the study. The levels of both small and fine air particulates in 795 cities were measured over the course of five years, from 2008 to 2013. Pollutants that the WHO looked for included nitrates, sulfate, and black carbon, which is known to pose the greatest risk of death and penetrates deeply into the lungs. After gathering the data, it was analyzed and regional trends became apparent.
Shockingly, it turns out that at least 80 percent of city dwelling people in the world are exposed to air quality far below the WHO’s minimum air quality standards. This means they’re at greater risk of developing asthma, blood clots in the lungs, stokes, and lung cancer. The type of polluted air that these people are breathing in is currently estimated to cause more than 3 million premature deaths per year. In addition, air pollution has significantly contributed to rising healthcare costs as more people require treatment for respiratory and cardiovascular diseases related to toxic air.
The lowest levels of polluted air within cities was found in the Americas, Western Pacific, Europe, and countries with higher average incomes. By contrast, urban air quality was the poorest in low and middle income nations, which includes countries in Southeast Asia, low income cities n the Western Pacific, and the Eastern Mediterranean. In these areas, the average levels of air pollution exceed 5 to 10 times the limits set by the WHO. In more than two-thirds of the cities there, urban air pollution significantly increased over the course of five years, by over 5 percent.
The WHO’s air pollution database covers 3,000 cities in 103 countries, but air quality data for Africa remains hard to come by. The data that was collected from the African region showed that the levels of air particulate matter, or PM, were above average. The WHO study shows a very strong correlation between the wealth and average income of a region and its corresponding air quality, which isn’t all too surprising — wealthier nations have more means to implement strategies to prevent pollution and greater resources to educate their citizens about air quality. Though urban air pollution is affecting every region of the world, densely populated and low income cities suffer the lowest air quality and highest PM levels.
Today, 98 percent of cities in low and middle income nations with populations greater than 100,000 don’t have air quality that meets WHO minimum guidelines. The air that residents in these areas breathe is full of toxins and have PM levels well above what’s considered normal. The percentage in high income countries is only 56 percent.
What is clear is that poor urban air quality equates to higher incidences of chronic and acute respiratory illnesses and asthma, stroke, lung cancer, and heart disease. It’s also bad news for the plants and animals in these areas, as they’re no better able to thrive in badly polluted air than people are. The consequences also extend to the agriculture business and small scale farmers. It’s been proven that air pollution adversely affects weather, which in turn can destroy or limit crops and threaten food supplies.
Dirty air that blankets cities and leads to death, ruin, and disease is something that affects the world’s vulnerable populations the most. The very young, elderly, and those with little resources or means to move to better areas suffer from air pollution disproportionately. While it’s a great thing that many cities around the world are making efforts to reduce air pollution, increase the sustainable habits of their populations, and protect the environment, many wonder if the concern is too little, too late.
At this point, small gestures and movements are doing little to curb the trend of increasing urban air pollution, and much more is needed to make a significant impact.
One of the most disturbing findings of the study is that despite the fact that there’s more air pollution awareness than ever and many cities around the globe have made efforts to combat it, air pollution is still on the rise. Even in areas where officials have implemented strategies to improve air quality, air pollution levels increased by 8 percent.
In addition to monitoring PM levels, the WHO has urged government officials to use their suggestions to improve air quality and stem the effects of urban pollution. Some of those suggestions include instituting rapid transit projects and providing incentives for residents to bike and walk more. In all, WHO estimates that if the majority of cities in their database followed these guidelines for improvement, incidences of pollution related deaths would decrease by 15 percent.
Still, most urban air pollution is beyond the control of individual citizens and the impetus for sparking change rests with government officials. Cleaner transportation methods, better waste management, and efficient energy production don’t typically have affordable solutions. Even though better air quality lowers the expenses related to treating pollution linked illnesses and diseases, lengthens life expectancy, and improves work productivity, none of these significant advantages of combating urban air pollution have been enough to motivate leaders within many of the countries with the highest PM levels.
Especially in developing nations and areas such as China, India, and Brazil, industry, manufacturing, exporting, and increasing wealth is more important than environmental and health concerns. In some wealthier nations, lobbying by industries which oppose pollution regulations and government officials who themselves invest in such industries are additional roadblocks to progress. Overall, the fight against polluted air in urban cities will continue to be an uphill battle for some time.