A new study from the World Health Organization found that 80% of the world’s city dwellers are exposed to air quality so poor it exceeds the organization’s standards. Researchers compared 795 different cities in 67 countries from 2008-2013, looking at the levels of small and fine particulate matter in the air — the types of pollution that pose the highest risk to human health, causing lung cancer, asthma, and even potential blood clots and strokes. Worldwide, this type of pollution is estimated to kill more than 3 million people prematurely each year.
Urban residents in low- and middle-income countries are the hardest hit, accounting for pollution levels that reach 5-10 times the WHO’s limits. In those regions, 98% of the cities surveyed had poor air quality, compared to only 56% in richer countries. Cities in Europe, the Americas, and the Western Pacific region had the best air quality overall, while Southeast Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean were the most polluted. Cities in Africa were less likely to have data available to study, however, in regions that were studied, pollution was higher than the median.
Even more disturbing than the initial findings is the fact that apparently, air pollution has become worse in recent years, despite the fact that its effects are becoming more well-known. Globally, air pollution levels increased 8% during the five-year period studied.
Nonetheless, WHO officials are praising governments around the world for monitoring air quality, and the report offers several suggestions for reducing pollution levels in cities, including prioritizing rapid transit and creating infrastructure to encourage citizens to walk and bike more. If implemented, WHO predicts these suggestions could reduce pollution-related deaths by 15%.