Nine out of 10 people globally breathe polluted air, says WHO expert

Nine out of 10 people globally breathe polluted air, says WHO expert

Lara Adejoro<

An expert of the World Health Organisation has said that nine out of every 10 people around the world, particularly those living in cities, are breathing air that is not consistent with what is considered good standards.

Speaking during an interview session tagged ‘Science in 5’ posted on WHO’s website, Director of the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health, Dr. Maria Neira said air pollution remained a major public health issue. 

According to her, more than seven million premature deaths every year are associated with exposure to air pollution.

“Exposure to air pollution is responsible for chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, lung cancer, pneumonia, name it. But in addition to that, we know now that these toxic particles will come to our lungs and from there to the bloodstream will reach our cardiovascular system and then be responsible for ischemic heart diseases, neurological disorders, stroke, neurological problems as well in general and reproductive system issues. 

“So, as you can imagine, all of those reasons tell us to consider that air pollution is one of the biggest public health issues we are confronting today,” she said.

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Explaining how COVID-19 affects a person living in a highly polluted environment where air pollution levels are very high, the physician said long-term exposure to air pollution will affect the immune system and, therefore, make those exposed to it more susceptible to respiratory diseases. 

“And obviously, COVID-19 is a respiratory disease. In addition to that, we know that exposure to air pollution will increase the risk for chronic diseases like cardiopulmonary, like metabolic diseases, diabetes. And we all know now that those diseases are the so-called co-morbidities that will increase the risk for more severity and even later outcome if you are a patient with COVID-19. So, yes,” she said.

To best way to reduce air pollution according to the expert is to stop burning fossil fuels.

She said the combustion of fossil fuels is contributing not only to climate change but to generating high levels of pollutants that then end up in the lungs. 

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“So changing that policy around which source of energy we are using will be one of the most effective. Legislation, go for enforcing the air quality guidelines of WHO. But if we go to concrete measures, of course at the city level, you have measures now going for a change in the transport, the public transport system they have, promoting more sustainable ways of public transport, reducing the use of private cars, going for the more efficient energy use of our buildings, making sure that they reduce the traffic congestion in certain areas. And we can see that all of those measures are immediate. They have immediate positive outcomes. 

“Obviously, as an individual, the best you can do is to put pressure on your politicians, on your mayors. Make sure that there are systems to monitor the air quality that you are breathing every day in your city. And by doing so, ensuring that measures are taken at the political level. If the situation on air pollution is really bad, if we take measures, there is optimism. 

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“You can see that in European countries, for instance, or North America, the situation improved very much in the last 20 years. We are still far from other parts of the world and we still need to put in place measures on sustainable transport, clean and modern use of energy sources, and all our way of consuming recycling. And therefore we will be able to tackle this huge problem of air pollution. Tackling the causes of climate change will bring enormous benefits as well on reducing the causes of air pollution and therefore contributing enormously to our health,” she said.

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