92 Percent of the Global Population Is Exposed to Dangerous Air Pollution

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Los Angeles' infamous smog casts a pall over the sprawling city. Image credit: iStock

Pollution isn’t just a problem for overcrowded cities and highways jam-packed with exhaust-spewing cars. Even remote, rural areas are experiencing air quality issues. In fact, according to a recent World Health Organization (WHO) report, 92 percent of the world’s population is now exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution.

Using satellite measurements, air transport models, and ground station monitors, the WHO collected data on air quality in more than 3000 urban and rural locations around the world. They identified areas with unsafe levels of particulate matter with a diameter less than 2.5 micrometers. This type of particulate matter includes pollutants like sulfate, nitrates, and black carbon, and is considered especially dangerous for human respiratory health. They found that 92 percent of people live in areas where air pollution exceeds the WHO’s ambient air quality guidelines. The pollution levels around the world can be seen on an interactive map on the WHO’s website

The WHO also collected data on pollution-related deaths. They found that 6.5 million deaths (or 11.6 percent of all global deaths) in 2012 alone could be linked to indoor and outdoor air pollution. Meanwhile, they note, around 3 million deaths a year are related to outdoor air pollution, with 90 percent of air pollution–related deaths occurring in low- and middle-income countries.

While these findings are extremely concerning, the WHO's Maria Neira, director of the Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, claims that countries can begin to reduce air pollution by implementing a range of sustainable practices.

"Fast action to tackle air pollution can’t come soon enough," she says. "Solutions exist with sustainable transport in cities, solid waste management, access to clean household fuels and cook-stoves, as well as renewable energies and industrial emissions reductions."

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