(A map of global concentrations of air pollutants, via the WHO)
The World Health Organization has just released what they say is their most detailed study ever on the global concentrations and impacts of air pollutants. Over 92% of the world’s population lives in places where air pollution exceeds WHO limits, which can contribute to lung cancer, heart disease, and strokes through small particles that enter the bloodstream and reach the brain. The WHO estimates that about three million deaths per year can be linked to outdoor air pollution. These serious consequences disproportionately affect people in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific region, where two-thirds of the world’s deaths linked to air pollution occurred, compared to 333,000 in Europe and the Americas. When “indoor” air pollution is added into the equation (which includes pollutants from wood smoke and cooking fires), air pollution can be linked to one in every nine deaths worldwide.
The WHO report highlights not only a serious need to address air pollution worldwide, but the inequities in how the issue is being dealt with. Rich countries are getting better in improving the quality of the air while poor countries are getting worse. As poorer countries develop, their populations rise and their energy demand exponentially increases. Many of their highest yielding industries are industrial and pollutants are pumped into the air without regulation. Cross-border pollution becomes an issue, especially in densely packed regions of Southeast Asia. Wealthier countries need to focus not only on innovating and utilizing cleaner energy sources, but encouraging better practices among industries with whom they engage commercially. Nonhuman factors play a small role in global air pollution, but the major drivers are human factors of inefficient energy use and transportation. Experts estimate that without quick and drastic action, the quality of the air and human health as a whole will quickly decline.