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Updated Dec 3, 2021

Improving air quality could save thousands of lives a year

The World Health Organisation (WHO) revised their guidelines for air quality back in September. Since then two studies have looked at the predicted health benefits of implementing these air quality limits across Europe.

A study by the European Environment Agency found that if EU countries implemented the new WHO guidelines then at least 177,300 early deaths could have been avoided in 2019. In terms of the UK this could have saved the lives of 17,200 people in 2019, which is nearly half of the 35,700 deaths that year which were related to air pollution.

Another study by Barcelona's Institute for Global Health looked at results in 1,000 cities across Europe where 168 million people live. They predicted that in 2015, 109,000 early deaths could have been avoided if the WHO's new guidelines specifically for particulate pollution (PM2.5 and PM10) had been met then. They also claimed that if the new limits relating to nitrogen dioxide (NO2) had been achieved, this could have prevented a further 57,000 early deaths.

Generally governments and cities are conscious of the health impact of poor air quality on its citizens, and there has been progress to act to reduce air pollution particularly in cities. Between 2005 and 2019 actions taken across the EU to improve air quality resulted in the avoidance of almost 250,000 early deaths annually. In the UK this action meant the avoidance of 21,060 pollution related early deaths a year.

WHO targets have been tightened since then and the studies demonstrate how many more lives could be saved through more ambitious action to improve air quality and reduce pollution.

Benefits of action go beyond the prevention of early deaths but also have a huge impact on many other health issues. A member of the WHO Guideline Development Group, Professor Bert Brunekreef, commented: "Even in relatively clean countries, exposure to air pollution leads to serious health effects. These include premature deaths, but there also effects occurring throughout life: from low birthweight and pneumonia among young children to asthma, heart disease and lung cancer later in life."

“It will take major efforts, sustained over a decade or more, to achieve the new guidelines. We must remember that the previous WHO guideline for particle pollution was initially seen as unachievable, but it has now been reached, or is within reach, in many densely populated areas in the world.”