WHO Adjusts Air Pollution Exposure Guidelines

According to recent studies, in addition to shortened life expectancy, air pollution is believed to reduce the quality of life in people of all ages. (Mladen Borisov via Unsplash)

After nearly two decades, the World Health Organization (WHO) has updated its guidelines for pollutant exposure due to new evidence of air quality’s adverse effects on human health. The new Global Air Quality Guidelines (AQGs) recommend significantly lower exposure to key air pollutants to avoid significant health risks.

Exposure to air pollution is estimated to contribute to upwards of seven million premature deaths annually. In addition to shortened life expectancy, pollutants are believed to reduce the quality of life in people of all ages. Children exposed to pollutants are more likely to experience reduced lung growth and function and respiratory issues, including asthma. For adults, outdoor air pollution can cause premature deaths due to stroke, diabetes, and heart disease.

The WHO International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) estimates that 80 percent of these deaths could be avoided if the current air pollution levels were reduced to those proposed in the updated guidelines.

The updated WHO guidelines come as similar studies in Europe and the United States have also identified a direct link between human health and pollutants in the atmosphere.

A recent Health Effects Institute (HEI) report explores the correlation between relatively low levels of pollutants and mortality rates in 22 European cohorts. The Utrecht University in the Netherlands found a significant association between air pollution exposure and deaths due to cardiovascular disease and lung cancer, among other illnesses.

Meanwhile, in the United States, a new University of California study found a direct link between the risk of Californians with Type 2 diabetes and those who live and exercise outdoors in areas with high pollutant levels. Among the participants in the study, those who engaged in outdoor activities and lived in areas with higher levels of smog were more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes.

One way to reduce air pollution is for the transportation sector to cut its contribution to air pollution. Several automakers are already leading the way. In 2020, five automakers, including BMW, Ford, Honda, VW (including Audi), and Volvo, received a top rating from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) for their commitment to reducing vehicle emissions. Other automakers have made company-wide commitments, including Volvo Cars’ ambition of being a climate-neutral company by 2040.