Nine out of 10 people around the world are breathing air containing high levels of pollutants, with the majority of European capitals among those failing to meet recommended air quality levels, according to new data from the World Health Organization (WHO).
The agency estimates that some seven million people are dying every year as a result of exposure to fine particles in polluted air, which penetrate deep into the lungs and cardiovascular system, causing health issues including lung cancer, heart disease and respiratory infections.
In cities in high-income European countries, air pollution has been shown to lower average life expectancy by between two and 24 months, depending on pollution levels, WHO said.
The group’s latest air quality database includes more than 4,300 cities in 108 countries worldwide, showing annual mean concentrations of fine particles of less than 10 or 2.5 microns in diameter, known as PM10 and PM2.5.
PM2.5 includes pollutants, such as sulfate, nitrates and black carbon, which pose the greatest risks to human health.
WHO advises countries to reduce their air pollution to annual mean values of 20 micrograms per cubic metres (μg/m3) for PM10, and 10 μg/m3 for PM2.5.
The data shows the majority of capitals in Europe are failing to meet these recommended levels.
Tallinn (Estonia), Stockholm (Sweden), and Dublin (Ireland) recorded some of the best results in recent data, while Ankara (Turkey), Skopje (Macedonia) and Tbilisi (Georgia) were the furthest away from the targets.
But while more work needs to be done, WHO noted that the majority of cities in European countries had seen a decline in PM2.5 and PM10 levels between 2010 and 2016.
Europe also has the highest number of places reporting data of any region in the world.
In general, WHO said more countries around the world are beginning to take action on the issue.
“Political leaders at all levels of government, including city mayors, are now starting to pay attention and take action,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“The good news is that we are seeing more and more governments increasing commitments to monitor and reduce air pollution as well as more global action from the health sector and other sectors like transport, housing and energy.”