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Protecting people and planet from ‘invisible killer’ is focus of UN health campaign to tackle air pollution

The United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) in partnership with the Coalition for Climate and Clean Air (CCAC) and the Government of Norway has launched a global awareness campaign on the dangers of air pollution – especially ‘invisible killers’ such as black carbon, ground-level ozone and methane – for the health of individuals and the planet.

Titled BreatheLife: Clean air. A healthy future, the campaign aims to mobilize cities and their inhabitants on issues of health and protecting the planet from the effects of air pollution.

Moreover, By WHO and CCAC joining forces, ‘BreatheLife’ brings together expertise and partners that can tackle both the climate and health impacts of air pollution.

According to WHO, air pollution kills nearly seven million people each year, nearly 12 per cent of deaths worldwide. It is responsible for 35 per cent of deaths due to lung disease, 27 per cent of deaths from heart disease, 34 per cent of deaths from stroke, and 36 per cent of deaths from lung cancer.

Urban air pollution levels also tend to be higher in many low and middle-income cities and in poor neighbourhoods of high-income cities. This means reductions in pollutants can have particularly large health benefits for lower income groups as well as for children, elderly, and women, the agency explains.

The campaign seeks to cut in half the number of deaths from air pollution by 2030 – the target year for the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by the UN General Assembly in September 2015.

‘Breathe Life’ highlights the practical policies that cities can implement to improve the air quality through better housing, transport infrastructure, managements of waste and energy systems. It also educates individuals and communities about the measures they can take daily to achieve cleaner air, such as stopping the incineration of waste, development of green spaces and the choice of walking or cycling.

Nine in ten people breathe air that is not safe. Air pollution is an invisible killer that we may face on a simple walk home or even in our homes.

Improved vehicle standards, prioritization of clean public transport, and the adoption of stoves and more efficient alternative fuel for cooking, lighting and heating are also part of the actions put forward by the campaign the goal of saving more lives and protect the environment.

For WHO and its partners, this series of measures to achieve a reduction of pollutants could significantly reduce the number of annual deaths from air pollution.

A New Air Pollution Database Is Good, but Imperfect

WHO’s most recent atlas of air quality leaves significant gaps in coverage

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently released its latest global urban air pollution database, including information for nearly 3,000 cities—a doubling from the 2014 database, which itself had data from 500 more cities than the previous (2011) iteration. These increases in coverage in air pollution measurement and reporting is encouraging, but the WHO numbers reveal that we still have a ways to go to construct a comprehensive and accurate picture of global air quality.

WHO singles out Onitsha, Nigeria and Zabol, Iran as the cities with the world’s worst air pollution, the first for elevated coarse particulate, or PM10, levels and the second for extreme fine particulate, or PM2.5, concentrations.

Yet these dubious rankings come with many uncertainties and stir more questions than they answer. “It is difficult to get accurate measurements in Africa,” a WHO spokeswoman said. “[I]deally the measurements should be done over a year to include different seasons and times of day. The reading in Onitsha may be representative but not altogether reliable.”

The air in Onitsha and Zabol is, in other words, bad, though just how bad we cannot say with certainty. Global air quality is worsening, human exposure to air pollution is on the rise, and deaths caused by these toxins have increased from 4.8 million in 1990 to 5.5 million in 2015. These trends are not, however, represented evenly throughout the world. Developing nations, those experiencing rapid industrial and urban expansion, bear the brunt of air pollution’s pernicious effects. The air in cities like Onitsha and Delhi has worsened as their populations and polluting industries have grown, while New York and London’s air quality has steadily improved.

And yet it is developing cities and nations that are least equipped to monitor and manage their ambient environment. WHO’s latest air quality database underscores this problem, as nations with the most resources have steadily increased air quality monitoring and reporting and have seen their air quality steadily improve. Developing countries have experienced deteriorating air quality alongside economic growth, as measurement in these places lags behind.

The vast majority of ground-based monitors are located in Europe and North America meaning there are major “blindspots” obfuscating where air pollution is affecting the most people in the most pernicious ways. These blindspots are why we need new ways to monitor global air pollution. The 2016 Environmental Performance Index (EPI) reveals the extent to which ground-based air monitoring and reporting is missing areas suffering from some of the world’s worst air pollution. Using satellite data, researchers at Dalhousie University have estimated ground-based exposures to fine particulate pollution or PM2.5—microscopic particles that can penetrate deep into human lung and blood tissue, leading to cardiovascular disease and other serious health impacts.

These satellite data have advantages as well as their disadvantages compared to ground-based information. Satellites offer a globally-consistent, long-term, and dynamic view of air pollution levels, exposures and trends. Satellite data provide a picture of the average PM pollution that an individual living in a particular place would be exposed to on a typical day, potentially smoothing out outlying spikes in air toxin concentrations. These data can be used to gauge pollution’s impacts on human health – in total, Global Burden of Disease estimates outdoor and indoor air pollution is responsible for 5.5 million premature deaths a year. Satellites do not, however, measure air pollution at the ground level, where people live and breathe, which is why governments need to invest in ground-based monitors.

Here we present four visualizations from Data-Driven Yale’s latest research on global air pollution and a fifth graphic from recent studies on pollution sources with original analysis:

1. Nearly half of the world’s people breathes unsafe air, with populations in developing countries disproportionately exposed. One-third (1.3 billion) of these people live in the East Asia and Pacific region, where in China and South Korea more than 50 percent of their populations are exposed to unsafe levels of fine particulate matter. In India and Nepal, the percentage is nearly 75 percent – a figure reinforced by WHO’s 2016 database, showing that 16 of the world’s 30 most polluted cities are in India. In our interactive map areas shaded red or darker experience air pollution that exceeds 10 micrograms/m3 – the threshold WHO considers unsafe for people to breathe. The map shows that East Asia, Northern India, and Northern Africa have the world’s highest levels of fine particulate pollution.

GLOBAL EXPOSURE (IN MICROGRAMS PER CUBIC METER) TO FINE PARTICULATE POLLUTION (PM.5).

GLOBAL EXPOSURE (IN MICROGRAMS PER CUBIC METER) TO FINE PARTICULATE POLLUTION (PM.5).

2. Nitrogen dioxide pollution, produced mainly from fossil fuel combustion, is a precursor of ozone and smog and mostly affects Europe and East Asia. In Europe, tax policies dating back to the 1970s and regulations from the 1990s designed to limit tailpipe CO2 emissions have encouraged the production and use of diesel vehicles, resulting in elevated NO2 levels. While diesel vehicles generate 15 percent less CO2 than their gasoline counterparts, diesel engines emit four times more NO2. In London, NO2 pollution is linked to 9,500 deaths annually. These data, derived from satellite estimates, show that air pollution is not only a developing world problem, but that industrialized countries also suffer from foul air. European cities, however, are implementing ambitious policies to reduce air pollution, such as the British capital’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone, which is expected to cut central London’s pollution in half by 2020. Overall air quality has improved in Europe in the last decade, while pollution continues to worsen in most of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

GLOBAL EXPOSURE (IN PPM) TO NITROGEN DIOXIDE (NO2).

GLOBAL EXPOSURE (IN PPM) TO NITROGEN DIOXIDE (NO2).

3. Global monitoring is improving, primarily in developed countries. Figure 3 shows increases in the number of cities monitoring air pollution from the WHO’s 2011, 2014 and 2016 databases. Cities monitoring air pollution have increased in number to the greatest extent in Europe and high-income countries in the Americas in the last five years. Progress in lower to middle-income countries has been much slower.

NUMBER OF CITIES WITH AIR POLLUTION DATA IN WHO’S URBAN AIR POLLUTION DATABASE IN 2011, 2014 AND 2016. DATA SOURCE: WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION

NUMBER OF CITIES WITH AIR POLLUTION DATA IN WHO’S URBAN AIR POLLUTION DATABASE IN 2011, 2014 AND 2016. DATA SOURCE: WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION

4. Governments that have implemented policies to control air pollution have reduced deaths. New data released in February of this year as part of the Global Burden of Disease (GDB) project show that 5.5 million premature deaths occur each year due to air pollution. Looking at GBD data over 10 years (Figure 4), key trends emerge. Air pollution-related deaths in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia have worsened more dramatically than other regions the last decade. The United States, European Union, and Australia have significantly reduced air pollution-related deaths, largely due to policy interventions targeted at industrial pollution control, reducing fossil fuel consumption, and improving fuel quality in the transport sector.

PERCENTAGE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN AIR POLLUTION-RELATED DEATHS IN 2000 AND 2013. DATA SOURCE: GLOBAL BURDEN OF DISEASE (GDB)

PERCENTAGE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN AIR POLLUTION-RELATED DEATHS IN 2000 AND 2013. DATA SOURCE: GLOBAL BURDEN OF DISEASE (GDB)

5. New sources of air pollution detected. Recent studies show that a major contributor to air pollution is shipping. This finding is particularly salient in coastal regions in East Asia. Forty-two percent of Hong Kong’s particulates, for instance, are from the maritime sector. And East Asia has experienced the highest number of shipping-related air pollution deaths. A new study shows that air pollution from the agriculture sector exceeds anthropogenic sources of particulate pollution in the United States and Europe (Figure 5). These studies underscore air pollution’s complex origins, as airborne toxins come from many different sources and activities, both natural and human-driven. The mix of sources makes it ever more challenging to design policies and interventions to address this class of pollutants. Despite the challenges, the imperative is clear: more efforts must be made to reverse the current trends, to reduce human exposure to air pollution and to improve global air quality.

DOMINANT CONTRIBUTOR TO PM2.5 CONCENTRATIONS WITH RESPECT TO NATURAL (BEIGE), ANTHROPOGENIC (WITHOUT AGRICULTURE IN RED), AND AGRICULTURAL SOURCES (GREEN). SOURCE: BAUER ET AL. (2016).

DOMINANT CONTRIBUTOR TO PM2.5 CONCENTRATIONS WITH RESPECT TO NATURAL (BEIGE), ANTHROPOGENIC (WITHOUT AGRICULTURE IN RED), AND AGRICULTURAL SOURCES (GREEN). SOURCE: BAUER ET AL. (2016).

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/a-new-air-pollution-database-is-good-but-imperfect/

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Air pollution ‘kills more than 5.5m people a year’

http://www.irishtimes.com/news/environment/air-pollution-kills-more-than-5-5m-people-a-year-1.2534112

Most of the deaths occur in China and India, two of the world’s fastest-growing economies

Air pollution kills more than 5.5 million people each year, new research has shown.

Most of the deaths occur in China and India, two of the world’s fastest-growing economies, say scientists.

International researchers conducted estimates of indoor and outdoor air pollution levels in the two countries and calculated their impact on health.

The data was compiled by the World Health Organisation’s Global Burden of Disease project.

Results show that China and India together account for 55 per cent of all the deaths caused by air pollution worldwide. Some 1.6 million people died as a result of poor air quality in China, and 1.4 million in India in 2013.

Professor Michael Brauer, from the University of British Columbia in Canada, said: “Air pollution is the fourth highest risk factor for death globally and by far the leading environmental risk factor for disease.

“Reducing air pollution is an incredibly efficient way to improve the health of a population.”

The findings were presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science(AAAS) taking place in Washington DC.

Power plants, industrial manufacturing, vehicle exhaust and burning coal and wood were all named as sources of small particles that lodge in the lungs and can endanger health.

In China, burning coal was the biggest contributor to air pollution. This alone was responsible for around 366,000 Chinese deaths in 2013.

A major source of poor air quality in India was the practice of burning wood, animal dung and other forms of biomass for cooking and heating.

Millions of families, including some of India’s poorest, were regularly exposed to high levels of particulate matter in their own homes.

Over the past half century, North America, Western Europe and Japan have made great strides to combat air pollution by using cleaner fuels and more efficient vehicles, limiting coal burning, and imposing restrictions on electric power plants and factories, the researchers pointed out.

Dan Greenbaum, president of the Health Effects Institute, a Boston-based non-profit organisation that sponsors efforts to analyse air pollution from different sources, said: “Having been in charge of designing and implementing strategies to improve air in the United States, I know how difficult it is. Developing countries have a tremendous task in front of them.

“This research helps guide the way by identifying the actions which can best improve public health.”

Shock figures to reveal deadly toll of global air pollution

World Health Organisation describes new data as ‘health emergency’, with rising concern likely to influence decision over Heathrow expansion

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jan/16/world-heslth-organisation-figures-deadly-pollution-levels-world-biggest-cities

The World Health Organisation has issued a stark new warning about deadly levels of pollution in many of the world’s biggest cities, claiming poor air quality is killing millions and threatening to overwhelm health services across the globe.

Before the release next month of figures that will show air pollution has worsened since 2014 in hundreds of already blighted urban areas, the WHO says there is now a global “public health emergency” that will have untold financial implications for governments.

The latest data, taken from 2,000 cities, will show further deterioration in many places as populations have grown, leaving large areas under clouds of smog created by a mix of transport fumes, construction dust, toxic gases from power generation and wood burning in homes.

The toxic haze blanketing cities could be clearly seen last week from the international space station. Last week it was also revealed that several streets in London had exceeded their annual limits for nitrogen dioxide emissions just a few days into 2016.

“We have a public health emergency in many countries from pollution. It’s dramatic, one of the biggest problems we are facing globally, with horrible future costs to society,” said Maria Neira, head of public health at the WHO, which is a specialist agency of the United Nations. “Air pollution leads to chronic diseases which require hospital space. Before, we knew that pollution was responsible for diseases like pneumonia and asthma. Now we know that it leads to bloodstream, heart and cardiovascular diseases, too – even dementia. We are storing up problems. These are chronic diseases that require hospital beds. The cost will be enormous,” said Neira.

Last week David Cameron, whose government has been accused of dragging its feet over air pollution and is facing legal challenges over alleged inaction, conceded in the Commons that the growing problem of air pollution in urban areas of the UK has implications for major policy decisions such as whether to expand Heathrow airport.

Asked by Tory MP Tania Mathias to pledge that he would never allow Heathrow to expand while nitrogen dioxide levels are risking the health of millions, Cameron said she was right to raise the matter, which was now “directly being taken on by the government”. Last December, after warnings from the Commons environmental audit committee and others, Cameron put off a decision on Heathrow expansion for at least another six months.

Government sources say Cameron and other ministers are now taking the air pollution issue far more seriously. In 2014 the prime minister was widely criticised for describing it as “a naturally occurring weather phenomenon”.

According to the UN, there are now 3.3 million premature deaths every year from air pollution, about three-quarters of which are from strokes and heart attacks. With nearly 1.4 million deaths a year, China has the most air pollution fatalities, followed by India with 645,000 and Pakistan with 110,000.

In Britain, where latest figures suggest that around 29,000 people a year die prematurely from particulate pollution and thousands more from long-term exposure to nitrogen dioxide gas, emitted largely by diesel engines, the government is being taken to court over its intention to delay addressing pollution for at least 10 years.

The NGO ClientEarth, which last year forced ministers to come up with fresh plans to tackle illegal nitrogen dioxide levels in British cities, said that it would seek urgent court action because the proposed solutions would take so long to implement and produce cleaner environments. Under the latest government plan, announced before Christmas, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) promised clean air zones for five cities by 2020 in addition to one already planned for London. But this will mean it will years before cities such as Manchester, Cardiff and Edinburgh feel the benefits.

Frank Kelly, director of the environmental health research group at King’s College London, and an adviser to several governments on the health risks of pollution, told the Observer that air pollution had become a “global plague”.

“It affects everyone, above all people in cities. As the world becomes more urbanised, it is becoming worse.”

Sotiris Vardoulakis, head of Public Health England’s environmental change department, said: “It’s the leading environmental health risk factor in the UK, responsible for 5% of all adult mortality. If we take action to reduce it, it will have multiple health co-benefits like lower greenhouse gas emissions and healthier cities. Air pollution has an impact on NHS spending, but we have not quantified it.”

A new report from the EU’s European Environment Agency (EEA) says pollution is now also the single largest environmental health risk in Europe, responsible for more than 430,000 premature deaths. “It shortens people’s lifespan and contributes to serious illnesses such as heart disease, respiratory problems and cancer. It also has considerable economic impacts, increasing medical costs and reducing productivity,” said the EEA director Hans Bruyninckx.

Leading economist Lord Stern said air pollution was an important factor in climate change. “Air pollution is of fundamental importance. We are only just learning about the scale of the toxicity of coal and diesel. We know that in China, 4,000 people a day die of air pollution. In India it is far worse. This is a deep, deep problem,” he said.

The latest scientific research, published in the journal Nature, suggests that air pollution now kills more people a year than malaria and HIV combined, and in many countries accounts for roughly 10 times more deaths than road accidents.

According to the WHO, air quality is deteriorating around the world to the point where only one in eight people live in cities that meet recommended air pollution levels.

On Monday the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, will give evidence in a trial of 13 climate change activists who occupied a Heathrow runway in July, delaying or cancelling flights. The Labour MP, whose Hayes and Harlington constituency includes Heathrow airport, has been a prominent opponent of the airport’s expansion and has strongly backed local residents who are resisting a third runway. At a rally in October he said: “In my constituency at the moment, people are literally dying. They’re dying because the air has already been poisoned by the aviation industry.”

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WHO’s Urban Ambient Air Pollution database ‐ Update 2016

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