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Most nations failed to meet WHO fine particle pollution standards

Ambient fine particulate matter known as PM2.5 is considered the world’s leading environmental health risk factor.

Air pollution in Paris
Air pollution in Paris (AN/Ioana Baciu/Unsplash)

BERN, Switzerland (AN) – Just 10 of the 134 countries, regions, and territories that reported data from air quality monitoring stations met the U.N. health agency's guidelines for fine particle pollution last year.

The findings on small particles that can penetrate deep into the lungs were contained in a report on Tuesday by IQAir, a Swiss-based air quality technology firm that analyzed data on particulate matter known as PM2.5 from 30,000 air quality monitoring stations across more than 7,800 cities.

Seven countries had annual averages within WHO safety guidelines of 5 micrograms per cubic meter: Australia, Estonia, Finland, Grenada, Iceland, Mauritius and New Zealand. Three territories – Bermuda, French Polynesia and Puerto Rico – also met the safety guidelines.

Air pollution from tiny particles that measure less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, or one-thirtieth the width of a human hair, can lead to coughing, itchy eyes and, eventually, longer-term damage to the heart and lungs.

Ambient fine particulate matter, PM2.5, that dirties outdoor air from the combustion of gas, oil, diesel fuel and wood is considered the world’s leading environmental health risk factor. It is found in dirt, dust, smoke and soot from wildfires and fossil fuel burning by power plants and cars.

"While PM2.5 poses direct health risks, its implications extend beyond human health to complex environmental processes impacted by the Earth’s climate," the report notes. "Climate change, primarily driven by greenhouse gas emissions, plays a pivotal role in influencing concentrations of PM2.5 air pollutants, and fossil fuel emissions are simultaneously responsible for the majority of PM2.5 related deaths."

The greatest environmental threat to human health is air pollution because each year it causes an estimated 7 million premature deaths, or 1-in-9 deaths worldwide, according to the U.N.'s World Health Organization.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

'The most harmful and common air pollutant'

In April 2022, WHO said 99% of the world's population breathes air that exceeds WHO air quality limits – and it threatens their health.

A record number of over 6,000 cities in 117 countries were monitoring air quality, it said, but people living in those cities still breathed unhealthy levels of fine particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide, with people in low and middle-income countries suffering the most.

In the IQAir analysis – which includes data available from an additional 1,800 cities – the top countries with the worst PM2.5 pollution in 2023 were Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India, which each had concentrations 10 times greater than WHO’s annual guideline.

More than 92% of countries exceeded the guidelines. Many of the worst-polluted cities for PM2.5 were in India. However, large portions of Africa, the Middle East and South America lack publicly available monitoring data, according to the report.

“The report focuses on PM 2.5 as it is the most harmful and common air pollutant, and causes the most pollution-related deaths," IQAir Global CEO Frank Hammes told a press conference.

"PM 2.5 penetrates every cell of our bodies, from the cells in our skin to cells deep in our lung and even in our brain," he said. "What's more, PM2.5 can be measured relatively inexpensively and accurately, not just by governments but by just about anyone."