WHO calls for action as unhealthy air quality impacts 99% of global population

April 06, 2022

2 min read


Disclosures: Neira and Tedros report no relevant financial disclosures.

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WHO updated its air quality database to include ground measurements of annual mean concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, as well as measurements of particulate matter with diameters equal to or smaller than 10 m or 2.5 m.

According to the organization, nearly the entire global population breathes unhealthy levels of nitrogen dioxide and fine particulate matter, both of which “originate mainly from human activities related to fossil fuel combustion.”

Pollution from cars.  Source: Adobe stock.
WHO calls for action as unhealthy air quality. Source: Adobe Stock.

The announcement was made ahead of World Health Day, which this year celebrates “Our Planet, Our Health.”

“Current energy concerns highlight the importance of speeding up the transition to cleaner, healthier energy systems,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, MSc, said in a press release. “High fossil fuel prices, energy security, and the urgency of addressing the twin health challenges of air pollution and climate change, underscores the pressing need to move faster towards a world that is much less dependent on fossil fuels.”

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

While over 6,000 cities in 117 countries now monitor air quality, 99% of the global population breathes air that exceeds WHO air quality limits, according to the release. Air pollution can have deleterious short- and long-term health consequences. Nitrogen dioxide specifically is associated with respiratory diseases and symptoms like asthma, coughing, wheezing and difficulty breathing. Meanwhile, particulate matter can enter a person’s bloodstream through their lungs, causing cardiovascular, cerebrovascular and respiratory effects.

Among high-income countries, only 17% of cities monitoring air quality fall below the WHO Air Quality Guidelines for PM2.5 PM gold10. In low- and middle-income countries, less than 1% of cities fall below recommended thresholds. WHO recommends a 24-hour maximum exposure of 15 µg/m³ for PM2.5 and 45 µg/m³ for PM10.

Among communities that collect nitrogen dioxide data at ground level, only 23% of people breathe air that falls below the new recommendations for nitrogen dioxide, 10 µg/m³ annually.

“After surviving a pandemic, it is unacceptable to still have 7 million preventable deaths and countless preventable lost years of good health due to air pollution,” maria Neira, MD, MPH, WHO director of the department of environment, climate change and health, said in the release. “That’s what we’re saying when we look at the mountain of air pollution data, evidence, and solutions available. Yet too many investments are still being sunk into a polluted environment rather than in clean, healthy air.”

The organization called on governments around the world to take rapid steps to improve air quality.

WHO attributes upwards of 13 million deaths annually to avoidable environmental causes. As part of World Health Day, WHO is demanding that more attention be paid to the climate crisis as “it is the single biggest health threat facing humanity,” WHO wrote. “The climate crisis is also a health crisis.”


Billions of people still breathe unhealthy air: new WHO data. https://www.who.int/news/item/04-04-2022-billions-of-people-still-breathe-unhealthy-air-new-who-data. Published April 4, 2022. Accessed April 4, 2022.

WHO global air quality guidelines: particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10), ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide. https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789240034228. Accessed April 4, 2022.

World health day 2022. https://www.who.int/campaigns/world-health-day/2022. Accessed April 4, 2022.

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