Air pollution in cities has reached such toxic levels that the world is confronting one of the “biggest public health issues” it has faced, the World Health Organisation (WHO) says.
The warning comes ahead of a new report detailing the amount of deaths caused by poor air quality to be released next month.
Dr Maria Neira, the WHO’s head of public health, said the crisis would cost governments “enormous” amounts globally.
Exposure to air pollution has now been linked to cardiovascular disease, she said, as well a catalogue of other illnesses.
It comes after figures released last year by the WHO suggested that seven million, or one in eight, premature deaths were linked to air pollution. She called on governments to take responsibility for tackling the deadly threat by ensuring they become more eco-friendly.
“This is one of the biggest public health issues we have ever confronted,” she said. “It is an enormous cost not only in terms of mortality, but in terms of treating diseases, and the costs of hospitalisation — as most of these diseases are chronic.
“It will also lead to less working days and a lower quality of life.”
Her conclusions are based on data which has been collected on 2,000 world cities, showing many populations are exposed to levels of air pollution exceeding the WHO standards.
Dr Neira added that improved public transport systems, a greater number of energy-efficient houses and a commitment to renewable energy could mitigate the effects of poor air quality.
“There is also a role to be played on an individual level, like choosing not to take the car,” she added.
“I think it is a societal decision, but it is important that, as well as the Government stepping in, citizens are also informed.”
A report by the EU’s environmental agency last December found air pollution is the single largest environmental health risk in Europe and causes more than 430,000 premature deaths a year.
The European Environmental Agency’s (EEA) 2015 report on air quality found most city dwellers continue to be exposed to air pollutants at levels deemed unsafe by the World Health Organization (WHO).
“Despite continuous improvements in recent decades, air pollution is still affecting the general health of Europeans, reducing their quality of life and life expectancy,” said EEA executive director Hans Bruyninckx.
“It also has considerable economic impacts, increasing medical costs and reducing productivity through lost working days.” The report found particulate matter, ground-level ozone, and nitrogen dioxide are the most ‘problematic’ pollutants.
Particulate matter — a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets in the air that can penetrate deeply into the lungs — was responsible for 432,000 premature deaths in Europe in 2012, according to the report.
In 2013, 87% of the EU urban population were exposed to PM concentrations that exceeded the WHO value set to protect human health. Among the report’s key findings is the recommendation the EU increases its targets to meet the WHO air quality standard.
“The benefits of improving Europe’s air quality are clear — meeting the WHO air quality standard throughout the EU 28 would lead to average PM concentrations dropping by about one third, resulting in 144,000 fewer premature deaths compared with the current situation.”