WHO sounds alarm over deadly global pollution

The skyline in Shenyang, in China's Liaoning province, shrouded in smog in this 2014 file photo. Outdoor air pollution kills more people in China than anywhere else, with 1.4 million deaths annually.
The skyline in Shenyang, in China's Liaoning province, shrouded in smog in this 2014 file photo. Outdoor air pollution kills more people in China than anywhere else, with 1.4 million deaths annually.PHOTO: REUTERS

Latest data shows situation worsening in cities, with growing health and financial costs

GENEVA • The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned of alarming levels of pollution in cities around the world which are killing millions of people and exacting high costs on governments.

The Guardian newspaper has reported that new data by WHO, to be released next month, shows air pollution has worsened since 2014 in many urban centres with growing populations, and has become a global "public health emergency".

The figures reflect the state of affairs in 2,000 cities, many of which are shrouded in smog generated by construction, transport and energy production, said The Guardian.

"We have a public health emergency in many countries from pollution. It's dramatic, one of the biggest problems we are facing globally, with horrible future costs to society," said Dr Maria Neira, head of public health at WHO under the United Nations, reported the newspaper.

"Air pollution leads to chronic diseases which require hospital space. Before, we knew that pollution was responsible for diseases like pneumonia and asthma. Now, we know that it leads to bloodstream, heart and cardiovascular diseases, too - even dementia," said Dr Neira.

"We are storing up problems. These are chronic diseases that require hospital beds. The cost will be enormous."

More than three million people die from outdoor air pollution a year, with the number expected to double by 2050, scientists warn. The majority of them die from strokes and heart attacks.

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We have a public health emergency in many countries from pollution. It's dramatic, one of the biggest problems we are facing globally, with horrible future costs to society.

DR MARIA NEIRA, head of public healthat the World Health Organisation

Outdoor air pollution kills more people in China than anywhere else, with 1.4 million deaths annually. India is second with 645,000.

Indoor air pollution, caused largely by burning wood or coal at home, is estimated to take the lives of another 3.4 million a year.

Studies have shown that air pollution has claimed more lives than HIV/Aids and malaria combined. Research has also found that agricultural emissions of ammonia - which come primarily from cattle, pigs, chickens and fertilisers - account for a fifth of all deaths globally.

Professor Frank Kelly, director of the environmental health research group at King's College London in Britain and a government health adviser, has described air pollution as a "global plague".

"It affects everyone, above all people in cities. As the world becomes more urbanised, it is becoming worse," he told The Guardian.

In Europe, pollution has become the single largest environmental heath risk, according to a new report by the European Union's European Environment Agency (EEA).

It is responsible for more than 430,000 premature deaths.

"It shortens people's lifespans and contributes to serious illnesses such as heart disease, respiratory problems and cancer. It also has considerable economic impact, increasing medical costs and reducing productivity," EEA director Hans Bruyninckx told The Guardian.

British economist Nicholas Herbert Stern said that air pollution contributes to climate change significantly. "We are only just learning about the scale of the toxicity of coal and diesel," he told The Guardian.

"We know that in China, 4,000 people a day die of air pollution... This is a deep, deep problem."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 19, 2016, with the headline 'WHO sounds alarm over deadly global pollution'. Print Edition | Subscribe