A new report published by the Health Effects Institute (HEI) has claimed that global air quality has declined exponentially in the past three decades, to the point where today, an estimated 95% of the global population is currently breathing unhealthy air (according to the World Health Organization’s acceptable air quality levels), and those living in the world’s poorest nations are at the highest risk of suffering respiratory diseases and death.
The annual State of Global Air Report has estimated that in 2016, 6.1 million people died prematurely as a result of respiratory or related illnesses that can be linked to poor air quality and the long-term exposure to air pollution. These illnesses include strokes, heart attacks, asthma, lung cancer, and chronic lung disease. This has placed air pollution as the fourth highest cause of death globally, behind high-blood pressure, diet, and smoking. The report found that 1.1 million of the 2016 deaths attributed to air pollution occurred in India, who, along with Bangladesh and Pakistan, have experienced the sharpest increases in air pollution since 2010.
While outdoor air pollution poses the most significant risk to people, indoor air pollution, primarily through the burning of solid fuels inside the home (such as wood and charcoal for heating and cooking), also contribute to respiratory-related illnesses and deaths, particularly in Asia and Africa. In 2016, up to 2.5 billion people across the world were exposed to indoor air pollution from the burning of solid fuel sources. However, the number of people who relied primarily on the use of solid fuel in the home dropped from 3.6 billion in 1990 to 2.4 billion in 2016.
Air pollution clearly has devastating effects on people, but it is also harming the environment, and warming the climate with the increasing concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which then, in turn, spark further environmental and weather issues that can cause illness or death in the population.
The decline in global air quality over time is primarily attributed to the industrialization and innovation that has expanded and increased since the mid-18th century. The increased burning of fossil fuels in an effort to keep up with production needs for a growing global population has released unprecedented levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouses gases (including methane and sulphur dioxide) into the atmosphere, increasing the amount of smoke and smog across the world. Today, the World Health Organization has set acceptable air pollution levels at 10 micrograms of particulate matter (all matter suspended in air) per cubic metre of air. For regions with much higher than average levels of air pollution, this ‘acceptable’ level is often higher (up to 35 micrograms per cubic metre).
If current levels of global air pollution remain the same or increase further, the percentage of the world’s population living in poor air quality regions will only continue to increase, as will the number of deaths related to air pollution and respiratory illnesses. While it is not possible to turn back and return to significantly lower levels of air pollution, the decline of air quality can be slowed by taking action against climate change at both an individual level and that of industrialized nations. Climate change is one of the most significant threats facing our growing population and our planet, and the increase of air pollution is only one of many consequences we face – and will continue to face – if we do not take action now.
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