The World Health Organization has tightened its air quality guidelines for the first time since 2005, calling for urgent action to reduce exposure to air pollution here on Wednesday.

Announcing the new guidelines, the United Nations health agency said the menace of air pollution is one of the biggest environmental threats to human health “on a par with other major global health risks such as unhealthy diet and tobacco smoking”. The organisation said that air pollution directly or indirectly results in seven million premature deaths a year.

The UN health agency said that since the 2005 guidelines, a study of the past 16 years has presented loads of evidence that shows that air pollution affects health even at lower concentrations.

The WHO said, “The accumulated evidence is sufficient to justify actions to reduce population exposure to key air pollutants, not only in particular countries or regions but on a global scale.”

It said, “WHO has adjusted almost all the air quality guideline levels downwards, warning that exceeding the new … levels is associated with significant risks to health. Adhering to them could save millions of lives.”

The effects of the rising air pollution in children include reduced lung growth and function, respiratory infections and aggravated asthma. Meanwhile, in adults, coronary heart disease and strokes have been the most common causes of premature death that can be attributed to outdoor air pollution. There is further evidence that links air pollution to diabetes and neurodegenerative conditions.

The WHO said that improving air quality would help with tackling the challenge of climate change and vice versa.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, “Air pollution is a threat to health in all countries, but it hits people in low- and middle-income countries the hardest.”

The new set of guidelines are aimed at protecting people from the adverse effects of air pollution and the world governments use the parameters as a reference for their legally binding standards.

Global environmental protection organisation Greenpeace said that a lot of megapolises around the world were already in breach of the 2005 guidelines.

In a statement, Greenpeace’s International Air Pollution Scientist Aidan Farrow, who is based at the University of Exeter, said, “What matters most is whether governments implement impactful policies to reduce pollutant emissions, such as ending investments in coal, oil and gas and prioritizing the transition to clean energy. The failure to meet the outgoing WHO guidelines must not be repeated.”

Asia: The Worst Hit Region

The WHO’s specified six pollutants, including ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide and recommended new guidelines for air quality levels for these major pollutants.

The UN health body also named PM10 and PM2.5. Both of these pollutants are range between 10 and 2.5 microns in diameter. The WHO said that both of these particles can penetrate deep into the lungs. Recent research showed that PM2.5 can even infiltrate the bloodstream and cause cardiovascular and respiratory problems along with affecting other organs.

The WHO said that Delhi (PM2.5 exceeded 17-fold), Lahore (16-fold), Dhaka (15-fold), and Zhengzhou (10-fold) were among the most polluted cities with the dirtiest air in the world. It said that no PM2.5 data was available for eight of the world’s 10 biggest cities.

The world health body said that in the latest measures, the PM2.5 guideline level has been halved.

Earlier last year, Greenpeace said that 79 of the world’s 100 most populous cities contained annual mean PM2.5 air pollution levels. IQAir data shows that these levels are in breach of the 2005 guidelines, according to data from. After the introduction of WHO’s new guidelines, a whopping 92 cities would be surpassing the PM2.5 pollution limit.

The new WHO guidelines come just weeks before the COP26 global climate summit in Glasgow scheduled for October 31.


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