There are no safe levels for air pollutants: bold actions from policymakers are needed

Guest article by Roberta Sadauskaite, European Respiratory Society 

On 22nd September 2021, the European Respiratory Society, together with more than 100 partners, issued a strong statement on the highly anticipated new WHO Air Quality Guidelines which reflect years of intensive work by world-renowned experts. These new guidelines highlight the large impact that poor air quality has on human health and provide new stimulus for more stringent clean air policies across the world.

High burden of health effects of air pollution – No safe level

The revised WHO Air Quality Guidelines take into account an overwhelming body of evidence that has accumulated over the past two decades, showing that the health effects of air pollution are serious and can affect nearly all organ systems of the human body. Further, recent studies consistently show that the adverse health effects of air pollution can also be observed at very low concentration levels, suggesting that there are no observable thresholds below which exposure can be considered safe.

Bold actions from policymakers are needed

Currently, the majority of clean air regulations rely on fixed limit values and provide little incentive to further reduce air pollution levels below the limit values. Given the latest scientific evidence on the health effects of air pollution at low concentration levels, any future clean air policies should include incentives for progressive lowering of exposures of the entire population, thereby improving health for all.

While fixed limit values are important, they must be accompanied by a continuous reduction of the average exposure. The upcoming 2022 revision of the EU Ambient Air Quality Directive will offer the opportunity for Europe to be a trailblazer and implement binding average exposure reduction goals for air pollutants while also having lowered fixed limit values. Moreover, the update of the Directive should include a scientific mechanism that could adapt the air quality standards swiftly in light of the latest scientific evidence.

Tackling climate change

There is no doubt that improving air quality provides enormous health benefits which only increase over time. These benefits are way higher than the implementation costs of air quality actions. Moreover, the cost effectiveness of clean air actions is enhanced by the close link between air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions fuelling climate change. Therefore, improving air quality will also feed into efforts for climate neutrality and vice versa, making benefits from investments in one area count twice.

The benefits are clear: As air pollution is a major global public health threat and improving air quality will lead to enormous improvements in public health for people of all ages. The new WHO Air Quality Guidelines are another stark reminder of the importance of lowering air pollution at every level and an impetus for governments to take strong actions to ensure clean air and address climate change simultaneously. The science has been updated we now need the political will to follow suit.

Disclaimer: the opinions – including possible policy recommendations – expressed in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of EPHA. The mere appearance of the articles on the EPHA website does not mean an endorsement by EPHA. 

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