Nine out of 10 people breathing polluted air

Smoke rising from chimneys of houses amid smog on a polluted day in Ulaanbaatar, on Jan 21, 2018.
Smoke rising from chimneys of houses amid smog on a polluted day in Ulaanbaatar, on Jan 21, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

Every corner of globe dealing with air pollution but problem far worse in poorer countries

GENEVA • More than 90 per cent of the global population is breathing in high levels of pollutants, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said yesterday, blaming poor air quality for some seven million deaths annually.

Fresh data from the UN health body shows that every corner of the globe is dealing with air pollution, although the problem is far worse in poorer countries.

"Air pollution threatens us all, but the poorest and most marginalised people bear the brunt of the burden," WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement.

The study, which examined health-hazardous levels of both outdoor and household air pollution, found that "around seven million people die every year from exposure to fine particles in polluted air".

Over 90 per cent of deaths linked to air pollution occur in low-or middle-income countries, mainly in Asia and Africa, it found.

The data focused on dangerous particulate matter with a diameter of between 2.5 and 10 micrometres (PM10), and particles with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres (PM2.5).

  • 3.8m

    Premature deaths each year linked to household air pollution.


    Fatalities annually linked to outdoor air pollution.


    People - mostly women and children - who are still breathing deadly smoke at home every day.

PM2.5 includes toxins like sulphate and black carbon, which pose the greatest health risks since they can penetrate deep into the lungs or cardiovascular system. They can cause diseases such as strokes, heart disease, lung cancer and respiratory infections like pneumonia.

Particularly worrying was that more than 40 per cent of the global population still does not have access to clean cooking fuels and technologies at home.

The use of dirty cooking fuel, like burning charcoal, is a major source of household air pollution, which is estimated to cause 3.8 million premature deaths each year.

"It is unacceptable that over three billion people - most of them women and children - are still breathing deadly smoke every day from using polluting stoves and fuels in their homes," Mr Tedros said.

The report said access to clean fuels was rising in all regions, but warned "improvements are not even keeping pace with population growth in many parts of the world", especially sub-Saharan Africa.

Outdoor air pollution was, meanwhile, linked to 4.2 million fatalities annually. In around one million of those cases, a combination of indoor and outdoor pollution was to blame, WHO said.

The report gives air quality data from more than 4,300 cities and towns in 108 countries, constituting the world's biggest database of ambient, or outdoor, air pollution.

WHO said over 1,000 cities had been added to its database since its last report two years ago, noting that monitoring can prompt action towards addressing the problem.

The data shows the highest ambient air pollution levels are found in what WHO dubs the Eastern Mediterranean - which basically covers the Middle East and North Africa - and in South-east Asia.

In these regions, air pollutants are often found at levels more than five times higher than what WHO considers safe.

The report also stressed an unevenness in the information received, with a dire lack of data from Africa and parts of the Western Pacific region. Only eight of the 47 countries in Africa have provided air quality information about one or more of their cities. And while the database lists information on 181 Indian cities, it provides data for only nine Chinese cities.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 03, 2018, with the headline 'Nine out of 10 people breathing polluted air'. Print Edition | Subscribe