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92 Percent Of The World's Population Breathes Substandard Air, WHO Says

Smog blankets Cairo, Egypt, in 2012.
Hassan Ammar
Smog blankets Cairo, Egypt, in 2012.

The World Health Organization says 92 percent of the world's population breathes air containing pollutants exceeding WHO limits, in new research released Tuesday.

The new WHO air-quality model, which uses satellite data and ground measurements, "represents the most detailed outdoor (or ambient) air pollution-related health data, by country, ever reported by WHO," according to a press release from the organization. The report used information from nearly 3,000 places from around the world, doubling the amount of data from the last assessment of this kind.

The WHO research measured particulate matter in the air, such as "sulphates, nitrates, ammonia, sodium chloride, black carbon, mineral dust and water." It did not account for known pollutants such as nitrogen oxides or ozone — meaning that these are likely conservative figures.

The pollution levels had a staggering impact on health, according to the report, which said: "In 2012, one out of every nine deaths was the result of air pollution-related conditions." The number of deaths attributable to both indoor and outdoor air pollution totaled approximately 6.5 million worldwide, of which 3 million deaths were blamed on outdoor air pollution — the focus of this report.

"Air pollution continues take a toll on the health of the most vulnerable populations — women, children and the older adults," Dr. Flavia Bustreo, assistant director general at WHO, said in a press release. "For people to be healthy, they must breathe clean air from their first breath to their last."

WHO added that lower and middle income countries, where about 87 percent of the deaths occur, bore the brunt of the health impact.

China had the most deaths attributable to air quality in 2012, at 1,032,833, followed by 621,138 in India and 140,851 in Russia. The U.S. had 38,043.

Here is the report's breakdown by region:

"The WHO Western Pacific and South East Asia regions bear most of the burden with 1.1 million and 799 000 deaths, respectively. In other regions, about 211 000 deaths occurred in Sub-Saharan Africa, 194 000 in the Eastern Mediterranean region, 190 000 in Europe, and 93 000 in the Americas. The remaining deaths occur in high-income countries of Europe (289 000), the Americas (44 000), Western Pacific (44 000), and Eastern Mediterranean (10 000)."

The researchers said that much of the outdoor air pollution comes from sources like "inefficient modes of transport, household fuel and waste burning, coal-fired power plants, and industrial activities." The model also includes sources not caused by humans, such as sand storms.

Maria Neria, director of WHO's public health and the environment department, told the Guardian that this improved data on air pollution should be seen as a call to action:

"Countries are confronted with the reality of better data. Now we have the figures of how many citizens are dying from air pollution. What we are learning is, this is very bad. Now there are no excuses for not taking action."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.