Health and Healthcare Systems

92% of us are breathing unsafe air. This map shows just how bad the problem is

A woman wearing a mask makes her way at a business district during a polluted day in Beijing, China, June 29, 2015.

Air pollution is linked to 11.6% of all deaths worldwide. Image: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Rosamond Hutt
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An estimated 92% of the world’s population lives in areas where air pollution exceeds safety limits, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which has released new research showing where the worst – and least – affected places are.

Interactive maps highlight the magnitude of the problem: swathes of the world are coloured yellow, orange, red and purple, meaning air quality breaches WHO limits.

 Global ambient air pollution
Image: WHO

Parts of Africa, Eastern Europe, India, China and the Middle East are the biggest regional danger spots. The WHO says almost all air pollution-related deaths (94%) occur in low- and middle-income countries.

Large areas of developed countries including the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Scandinavian nations meet safety guidelines. But, as the map shows, much of Europe is breathing dirty air.

Even within countries, levels of air pollution can vary. In Italy, for example, air quality in the industrial north is particularly bad.


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The dangers

The WHO’s latest research is its most detailed to date on outdoor air pollution by country. It shows around 3 million deaths globally are linked to pollution from vehicles, power generation and industry.

 Selected primary air pollutants and their sources, 2015
Image: WHO/IEA

However, indoor air pollution caused by smoke from cooking stoves or fires can be just as deadly, the WHO says. Together, outdoor and indoor air pollution were associated with the deaths of an estimated 6.5 million people worldwide in 2012. That’s 11.6% of all global deaths – more than the number of people killed by HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and road injuries combined.

The maps, based on data from satellites, air transport models and ground station monitors, show levels of particulate matter, such as sulphate, nitrates and black carbon.

Tiny particles, known as PM2.5, have a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers and can penetrate deep into the lungs and cardiovascular system, increasing the risk of acute respiratory infections and noncommunicable diseases, notably cardiovascular diseases, stroke, chronic lung disease and lung cancer. WHO guidelines state annual average concentrations of PM2.5 should be below 10 micrograms per cubic meter, but the vast majority of the world's population is living in areas exceeding this limit.

"Air pollution continues to take a toll on the health of the most vulnerable populations – women, children and the older adults," says Dr Flavia Bustreo, the WHO’s Assistant Director-General.

"For people to be healthy, they must breathe clean air from their first breath to their last."

The WHO says its new research, based on a model developed in collaboration with the University of Bath in the UK, provides “even more confident estimates” of deaths linked to air pollution and will help monitor progress on tackling the issue.

"More and more cities are monitoring air pollution now, satellite data is more comprehensive, and we are getting better at refining the related health estimates," says Dr Maria Neira, Director of the WHO’s Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health.

"Fast action to tackle air pollution can’t come soon enough," she adds. "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."

General disclaimer:
The designations employed and the presentation of material on this map do not imply the expression of any opinion on the part of the World Economic Forum concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries.

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