WHO map shows 92% of world lives with poor air quality

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Every breath that a person takes brings life-giving oxygen into the body. However, those essential molecules are not the only things that get brought into a person’s lungs. The air that is breathed around the world often also contain pollutants that increase the risk of disease and can even lead to premature death. But despite these risks, recent findings suggest that unpolluted air seems to be the exception, not the rule, for billions of people living in every hemisphere.

According to a new air quality model released by the World Health Organization in September, 92 percent of the people in the world live in areas with levels of air pollution that exceed the organization’s standard for quality air. It is a major public health concern that is especially dangerous for many of the world’s most vulnerable demographics.

The WHO air quality map

The interactive map created by WHO is meant to be used as a resource for both policymakers and those who are at risk. Because polluted air has been associated with a number of health concerns – including stroke, heart disease, lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – doctors and other providers in highly-polluted areas may need to be intentional about discussing these risks and preventive measures with patients. The WHO reported that air quality – both outdoor and indoor – contributes to approximately 11 percent of deaths globally each year.

“Air pollution continues take a toll on the health of the most vulnerable populations – women, children and older adults. For people to be healthy, they must breathe clean air from their first breath to their last,” Dr Flavia Bustreo, Assistant Director General at WHO, said in a statement. “The new WHO model shows countries where the air pollution danger spots are, and provides a baseline for monitoring progress in combating it.”

While indoor air contamination is also a health concern, the map specifically models the outdoor levels of air pollution around the world. WHO reported that it is the most detailed outdoor data that has ever been reported by the organization.

Air pollution in the U.S.

While Dr. Carlos Dora, WHO coordinator for environmental and social determinants of health, told the New York Times that North America’s air quality looked better than Europe’s, which has a higher dependence on diesel fuel, the U.S. still has great room for improvement. Though many Americans give little thought to their air quality unless there is smoke or smog on the horizon, clear air does not necessarily equate to healthy air.

In April, the American Lung Association reported that about half of Americans live in areas where the air quality is bad enough to cause health problems. The organization’s annual report estimated that 166 million people are at risk in the U.S. as of 2016.
According to the ALA 2016 State of the Air Report, the 10 cities with the worst air quality by year-round particle pollution were:
1. Bakersfield, California
2. Visalia-Porterville-Hanford, California
3. Fresno-Madera, California
4. Los Angeles-Long Beach, California
5. El Centro, California
6. (tied) Modesto-Merced, California
7. San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, California
8. Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton, Pennsylvania-Ohio-West Virginia
9. Harrisburg-York-Lebanon, Pennsylvania
10. Louisville-Jefferson, Missouri

In response to the data revealed by the report, the organization is calling for every state in the U.S. to take action to protect the health of the American people.

“We can and must do more to save lives and fight climate change,” Harold P. Wimmer, the National President and CEO of the American Lung Association, said on the report. “The Lung Association calls on every state to adopt strong Clean Power Plans to reduce emissions from power plants that worsen climate change and immediately harm health. The Supreme Court has put a temporary hold on EPA’s enforcement of the federal Clean Power Plan, but states should not wait to clean up carbon pollution from their power plants.”

As an expert in this field, it is important to recognize the potential impacts of such a major health concern. The online Master of Public Health program  offered at the University of Arizona equips students with the skills, knowledge and critical-thinking needed to be successful in this career.