New WHO air quality guidelines could save millions of lives

The World Health Organization (WHO) has released new guidelines for air quality in recognition of the damage air pollution inflicts on human health, at even lower concentrations than previously understood.

The guidelines set maximum levels for a range of pollutants: particulate matter (as PM2.5 and PM10), ozone, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide. They have been revised because, according to the WHO, since the last update in 2005, there has been a marked increase of evidence showing how air pollution affects health.

According to the WHO, exposure to air pollution causes approximately 7 million premature deaths per year, and results in the loss of millions more healthy years of life.

In children, effects include reduced lung growth and function, respiratory infections and aggravated asthma; in adults, ischaemic heart disease, stroke, diabetes and neurodegenerative conditions. The WHO says this puts the burden of disease attributable to air pollution on a par with other global health risks such as unhealthy diet and tobacco smoking. It also notes that almost 80% of deaths related to PM2.5 could be avoided in the world if the current air pollution levels were reduced to those proposed in the updated guideline.

Outdoor air is indoor air

QUT Professor Lidia Morawska has welcomed the new guidelines. She says they have important implications for Australia – and not just for outdoor air pollution.

The guidelines apply to both outdoor and indoor air, across all settings. And as Prof. Morawska points out, the two are closely related.

“It would be difficult to improve indoor air quality without at the same time improving outdoor air quality,” she says, “because outdoor air penetrates indoors, and it’s a major source of indoor air pollution.

“Of course, we need to take into account and clean what’s generated indoors – for example, the virus and particles containing the virus, or any other indoor emissions – but outdoor air penetrates indoors, and unless it’s cleaner, indoor air will be polluted because of it.”

Another issue is that although Australia has a system for managing outdoor air pollution, like many other countries, it does not have indoor air quality standards.

“Pollutants are introduced in the National Construction Code,” says Prof. Morawska. “These are listed and are concentration bound. But there are no standard measurement means, and there is no enforcement.”

Prof. Morawska also points out that the NCC is a construction code rather than a performance standard that can ensure ongoing adherence to air quality guidelines.

But Australia has the cleanest air in the world!

A common misconception in Australia is that we have relatively clean air compared to the rest of the world. It is therefore tempting to assume that our air quality standards are already more stringent than even the revised WHO guidelines.

In fact, Australia’s standards now fall short of the WHO’s recommendations – as do our actual readings.

“It is not as bad as in many other countries, where the concentrations are very significantly higher,” says Prof. Morawska. “In Australia they are just higher. But comparing ourselves to the places that are more polluted and not seeing the fact that we are still at risk, that’s probably not the best way to look at things.”

It is also worth noting that Australia’s elevated levels of air pollution occur under normal circumstances. When bushfires occur, they are markedly worse.

Of particular concern is the fact that especially harmful pollutants such as particulate matter (PM) are mainly produced by fuel combustion in different sectors, including transport and energy – areas in which Australia is lagging behind the rest of the world.

Clean air and clean energy

Although not legally binding, the WHO guidelines are an evidence-informed tool to guide legislation and policies. WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has urged all countries and all those fighting to protect the environment to “put them to use to reduce suffering and save lives”.

The new guidelines could present an opportunity for Australia to raise its game, but Prof. Morawska says this will depend on political will, which has so far been lacking.

“If you were in the government, would you treat this as an enabler or would you treat it a nuisance?” she says.

“Because, since the values are now lower than they used to be, it means the government needs to do more than they’ve been doing so far. And the way of doing more is reducing source emissions by, in particular, turning to clean energy.

“So, it is an enabler for the governments that are progressive and want to do it, but … unfortunately, in many states and nationally, the transition to clean energy has been very, very slow.”

To read the new WHO air quality guidelines, click here.

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