Yesterday members of the WHO's special program for health and the environment urged worldwide nations to adopt strict air pollution laws aimed at significantly reducing harmful levels of particulate matter, ozone and sulfur dioxide.
"By reducing air pollution levels, we can help countries to reduce the global burden of disease from respiratory infections, heart disease, and lung cancer, which they otherwise would be facing," said Maria Neira, WHO director of public health and the environment. "Moreover, action to reduce the direct impact of air pollution will also cut emissions of gases which contribute to climate change and provide other health benefits."
The WHO warned that in order for some cities to meet its recommendations, levels of pollution would need to be cut by as much as three fold. Because many countries currently lack any air pollution standards and many countries are still developing, the WHO acknowledged its guidelines could be difficult to follow.
The organization's recommendations include reducing levels of particulate matter -- known as PM10 and produced mainly by the burning of fossil fuels -- to 10 to 20 micrograms per cubic meter. Many cities currently have PM10 levels in excess of 70 micrograms per cubic meter. PM10 has been linked to respiratory illness and heart disease, and the WHO says reducing these harmful particulate matter levels can reduce deaths from air pollution by 15 percent per year.
The daily limit for ozone -- a key component of smog -- will be reduced from 120 micrograms per cubic meter to 100 micrograms. The WHO notes that this reduction could be problematic for many cities, especially those with a high number of sunny days, when ozone concentrations are high and cause asthma attacks and other respiratory problems.
Finally, the organization recommends cutting levels of sulfur dioxide from 125 micrograms per cubic meter to 20 micrograms. Cutting this pollutant would result in fewer childhood diseases and deaths, the researchers say.
Dr. Roberto Bertollini, European director of WHO's health and environment program, said the new guidelines represent the "most widely agreed and up-to-date assessment of health effects of air pollution, recommending targets for air quality at which the health risks are significantly reduced."