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WHO looks at new strategy on polluted air

With 7 million people a year dying from exposure to polluted air, WHO is weighing a new strategy to pinpoint the sources and take action to reduce risks.

GENEVA (AN) — With 7 million people a year dying from exposure to polluted air, the World Health Organization is weighing a new strategy to pinpoint the sources and take collective action to reduce risks.

The strategy is part of a draft report from WHO's director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, on health, environment and climate change. He prepared a second draft report on how climate change was affecting the health of small island developing nations.

His report on health, environment and climate change said that "known avoidable environmental risks" cause at least 13 million a year in preventable deaths, or a quarter of all deaths and disease burden — including 7 million deaths a year from air pollution.

A new strategy towards air pollution is needed, his report said, because the approaches that WHO uses now "have not proven sufficient in sustainably and efficiently reducing environmental risks to health and building health-supportive and enabling environments."

More than 90% of the world's population breathes polluted air, his report said, and more than half of the world has to make do with "unsafely managed water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene, resulting in more than 800 000 preventable deaths each year."

In addition, it said, more than 1 million workers a year die from unsafe workplace conditions, and more than 1 million a year people die from exposure to chemicals.

Ghebreyesus, who previously served as Ethiopia's top diplomat and health minister, asked WHO's executive board for comments on the two reports during their meetings this week. Both reports propose strategic plans for improving environmental health by 2030.

Severe air pollution in Anyang, China (Arete/V.T. Polywoda)

Growing public debate

Environmental health risks, particularly from climate change, have been gaining broad public attention as the world's top climate scientists firm up the likely consequences.

Last October, the United Nations’ Nobel Prize-winning panel on climate change reported there is no longer a “safe” temperature guardrail for the overheating planet.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, said nothing can protect the world against all of the most dangerous projections for global warming, which include more heatwaves, droughts and other human-affected climate impacts.

It said even the most optimistic scenarios for reducing global greenhouse gases in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement will seriously affect the planet and future generations.

Among the report’s key findings were that a half-degree Celsius less warming would cause fewer deaths and illnesses, 0.1 meters less in sea rise and cut by half the number of people who would lack fresh water. It also said there would be substantially fewer heatwaves and droughts and the world’s coral reefs might survive.

But some of the worst effects from coastal flooding, more damaging storms and stronger heat waves will be hardest on the world’s poor: a rise in disease and displacement, lost jobs and livelihoods, pricier food and scarcer freshwater supplies.

Sustainable development for health

The draft report on health, environment and climate change found the rising global temperatures are "modifying the transmission of food-borne, water-borne and zoonotic infectious diseases, resulting in large impacts on health."

Populations in vulnerable situations, including those living on small islands and in the least developed countries and regions, are at higher risk, the report said. And new environmental, climatic and health issues are emerging, it said, such as management of electronic waste, nanoparticles, micro-plastics and endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

In response, the WHO report recommends that health authorities, communities and others become "more active in shaping the energy transition, guiding urbanization and ameliorating other major development trends, so as to protect and promote health."

More specifically, the report provides 5-year target goals to achieve by 2023:

  • Reduce the mortality rate from air pollution by 5%.
  • Provide access to safely managed drinking water services for 1 billion people.
  • Provide access to safely managed sanitation services for 800 million people.
  • Reduce by 40-50% the number of people in low- and middle-income countries served by hospitals without reliable electricity and basic water and sanitation services.
  • Double the climate finance for health protection in low- and middle-income countries.
  • Reduce by 10% mortality from climate-sensitive diseases.