Air quality worsening in many world cities, WHO claims

Latest World Health Organization data prompts Labour to criticise UK government for failing to tackle air pollution in Britain

Air quality in most cities around the world that monitor outdoor air pollution fail to meet World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines for safe levels — and in many of them it is getting worse, the UN agency claims.

According to information released today (May 7) from WHO’s urban air quality database of 1,600 cities across 91 countries, only 12% of the people living in these cities are exposed to levels that comply with WHO guidelines.

Professor ApSimon is co-chair of the Air Pollution Research in London (APRIL) group

Air pollution is getting worse in many cities around the world, according to the World Health Organisation

And, around half of the urban population in monitored cities are exposed to air pollution at least 2.5 times higher than WHO recommended levels, the agency claims.

Furthermore, in most cities where there is enough data to compare current air pollution levels with previous years, air pollution is getting worse, WHO says, due to reliance on fossil fuels, private transport vehicles, inefficient use of energy in buildings and the use of biomass for cooking and heating.

The world’s average particulate matter PM10 level is 71mg3 (micrograms per cubic metre). WHO’s guideline level is 20mg3.

However, compared to 2011, 500 more cities around the world are monitoring air quality and reporting the information to WHO’s database, leading the agency to believe that there is a ‘growing  recognition of air pollution’s health risks’ — although there is a particular shortage of data in WHO’s Africa and Eastern Mediterranean regions.

Some cities are also making ‘notable improvements’ to air quality, according to WHO, through policies such as banning coal for heating in buildings, using renewable or clean fuels for electricity production and improving motor vehicle engine efficiency.

The data has prompted WHO to call for greater awareness of health risks caused by air pollution; the implementation of effective air pollution mitigation policies; and close monitoring of the situation in cities worldwide.

In March, WHO estimated that around seven million people died prematurely in 2012 as a result of exposure to air pollution (see story).

Dr Maria Neira, WHO director for public health, environmental and social determinants of health, said: “Effective policies and strategies are well understood, but they need to be implemented at sufficient scale. Cities such as Copenhagen and Bogotà, for example, have improved air quality by promoting ‘active transport’ and prioritizing dedicated networks of urban public transport, walking and cycling.”


UK cities providing data to WHO which breached the agency’s PM10 guideline level of 20mg3 or higher in 2011, according to today’s data, were: Birmingham (22mg3); Bristol (20); Chesterfield (22); Leeds (21); London (22); Newcastle (20); Norwich (20); Nottingham (25); Plymouth (20); Sheffield (23); Southampton (21); Stoke on Trent (22); Thurrock (25); and Warwick (20).

Reacting to the WHO data published today, the Labour party criticised the UK government for failing to tackle Britain’s air quality problem.

Shadow minister for the environment, Barry Gardiner MP, said: “29,000 people in the UK are dying every year because of air pollution in our towns and cities and yet the government has no strategy. This World Health Organisation report shows that there is an urgent need for the Government to take action against this silent killer and reduce the level of air pollution.

“The government recently had to scrap its local air quality strategy because the evidence indicated that it would have made the problem worse and they now have no plan at all. This report shows that the government’s failure is increasing the health inequalities that blight our cities, including Nottingham, London and Birmingham.”

Friends of the Earth campaigner Jenny Bates also called for “tough measures” to tackle the causes of pollution, such as “urgent plans for cleaner vehicles, encouraging people to drive less through better public transport and cycling facilities, and ending plans to build more roads.”


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