GENEVA (AP) — The harmful effects of air pollution kick in at lower levels than previously thought, the World Health Organization said Wednesday as it updated its air quality guidelines for the first time in 15 years.
The U.N. health agency released its revised guidance as climate change is a leading topic at the U.N. General Assembly in New York City. Chinese President Xi Jinping announced Tuesday that China will no longer fund power plants fired by coal, which generates several of the pollutants covered by the guidelines.
Since the last update, better monitoring and science have cleared up the picture about the effects of six major air pollutants on human health. According to the agency, 90% of the world’s people already live in areas with at least one particularly harmful type of pollutant.
“There is nothing more essential for life than air quality,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters. “And yet, because of air pollution, the simple act of breathing contributes to 7 million deaths a year. Almost everyone around the world is exposed to unhealthy levels of air pollution.”
Air pollution is now comparable to other health risks like unhealthy diets and tobacco use, and is recognized “as the single biggest environmental threat to human health,” Dr. Dorota Jarosinska, WHO Europe program manager for living and working environments, said.
The guidelines are not legally binding but are intended as a reference for policymakers, advocacy groups and academics. They change the advised concentrations of ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and two types of particulate matter known as PM 2.5 and PM 10.
While developed countries and some developing ones have set standards for air quality, a report from the U.N.’s environment program earlier this month found that one-third of the world’s countries have no legally mandated standards for outdoor air quality. Many of those are in Africa and the Western Pacific.
“The unenviable challenge for policymakers will be to respond in a way that minimizes the proven harms to health ... with policies that are proportionate, cost-effective and, crucially, deliver benefits equitably across the country and population,” said University of York professor Alastair Lewis of the National Center for Atmospheric Science.