WHO: Global South is the epicenter of poor air quality that suffocates and kills the most vulnerable | planet of the future

How many years of life do we lose by breathing polluted air? In a dozen countries in Southeast Asia and Africa, the response is devastating, with Bangladeshis living on average nearly seven years less, Indians five, and Democratic Republic of the Congo nearly three years, according to an Index recently published by the American University of Chicago, in which concludes that, if nothing changes, the inhabitants of the planet will be deprived of an average of about 2.3 years of life due to the air they breathe. In other words, according to this study, air pollution already kills globally, as does tobacco, three times more than alcohol consumption, five times more than traffic accidents, and seven times more than AIDS.

“We are talking about an invisible killer and a huge public health problem” of our time, Maria Neira, director of the Department of Public Health and the Environment of the World Health Organization (WHO), assures the newspaper. “Because we never read: this man died because his lungs were exhausted from inhaling bad air, and this paved the way for lung cancer or a heart attack that he suffered, and yet every year seven million people die prematurely from diseases associated with air pollution. I think this figure deserves us to stop and think,” Neira adds.

This ominous estimate of how many lives is stolen by polluted air depends on the level of pollution, how long you live in that place, and the age and health of the person, but there are places that have been particularly affected, and they are all on the Global south. , where there are people who “suffocate,” experts say. New Delhi, Bangladesh’s Gazipur district, Mai Ndombe, Kwilu and Kasai regions east of Kinshasa, Nepal’s Mahottari district, or Guatemala’s Mixco city offer particularly grim numbers in terms of hopes. According to the AQLI report, life is taken from the simple act of breathing.

According to WHO, 94% of the world’s population breathes air that does not meet quality standards.

“In India, surgeons operate on 17-year-old boys whose lungs are similar to those of an 80-year-old man who smoked all his adult life,” Neira cites the example.

To raise the alarm and draw attention to north-south disparities in the face of this huge threat, the UN has set in 2020 that 7 September will be the International Day of Clean Air for blue skies. Because if funds are not invested, “the number of deaths caused by outdoor air pollution could increase by more than 50% by 2050.” In addition, WHO plans to schedule a second global meeting on air pollution and health in Ghana in October 2024 following the meeting held in 2018.

Invest in a global fund

Air quality is measured by so-called particulate matter less than 2.5 microns (PM2.5). WHO states that the concentration of these microscopic particles of more than five micrograms per cubic meter is already beginning to be harmful to the body, and has estimated that 94% of the world’s population breathes air that does not meet quality standards. For example, in New Delhi, the concentration of particles is 25 times higher than that established by WHO, and in Europe, on average, 2.5 times higher.

Air pollution kills and kills especially those with fewer resources and among them the most vulnerable. “We already know that these microparticles can enter the bloodstream and be associated with diseases such as strokes, heart attacks and other cardiovascular problems, but now we are also seeing that they cross the placental barrier and start affecting the fetal brain even more. before you breathe,” he warns. Neira, explaining that the list of harmful effects produced by polluted air continues to grow as research progresses.

The investment required to reverse the situation caused by poor air quality will be three times less than the cost of treating the diseases it causes.

Maria Neira, WHO

Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan, which account for almost a quarter of the world’s population, have the highest levels of pollution in the world, and their residents will lose an average of five years of life if pollution levels persist, according to a University of Chicago report. Since the turn of the century, the degree of particle pollution in these countries has increased by more than 50% due to industrialization, economic development and population growth, which has created a demand for energy and the use of fossil fuels worldwide.

In sub-Saharan Africa, while AIDS and malaria are still considered health priorities, the effects of exposure to particulate matter are already as severe or even more severe in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, which are also among the most polluted countries. . peace.

A man transports goods on his bike in New Delhi, shrouded in a cloud of pollution, in November 2020.DANISH SIDDIKI (Reuters)

“Unfortunately, countries that today suffer from some of the highest levels of pollution do not have the necessary tools to correct these major shortcomings in air quality management, such as collecting high-quality data,” the authors lament. A University of Chicago report by Michael Greenstone and Christa Hasenkopf states that, for example, only 6.8% and 3.7% of governments in Asia and Africa, respectively, provide air quality information.

Neira explains that the WHO wants to set up a global fund for climate change, air quality and health, as similar initiatives have come up in the past to alleviate other pressing health concerns. “We are trying to ignite the desire of countries to invest in this and be able to provide more funds and infrastructure to the most affected countries, for example, so that medical centers are better equipped and medical workers who are on the first line of patient care are more trained,” the expert explains.

“Because right now the investment required to reverse the situation caused by poor air quality will be three times less than what it costs us to treat the diseases it causes,” says the expert. In a statement released on the occasion of International Clean Air Day, the WHO argues that air pollution also threatens the global economy due to the huge health care costs it entails, which already amount to 6.1% of global GDP, or almost eight trillion euro in 2019.

A report from the University of Chicago, citing data from the Clear Air Fund, recalls that in 2021, philanthropic foundations sent $63.8 million (59.4 million euros) to combat air pollution, but “the entire African continent receives less than $300,000 ($279,000).” “Comparisons are hateful, and of course we don’t want anyone to stop allocating funds to fight malaria or AIDS,” Neira warns prudently.

It is important for the man leading the WHO to support the most affected countries so that they switch to cleaner energy sources as soon as possible. “In Africa, less than 1% of the population currently uses solar energy, and this will not happen because there is no sun. This is because other interests are involved,” lamented a senior official who had just attended the African Climate Summit in Nairobi, where this issue was raised.

According to Xavier Querol, research professor at the Institute for Environmental Diagnosis and Water Research (IDAEA) of the High Council for Scientific Research (CSIC), the Global North has “polluted and filled the atmosphere with polluting gases for many years” and is responsible when it comes to to help the people of the south to rely on renewable energy and less polluting technologies, for example, when looking for alternatives to burning rice straw in India. “This requires funds, as well as training, education and health care,” insists the expert in an interview with this newspaper, who also criticizes the presence of polluting activities of companies from the north in countries already severely affected by poor air quality. in a kind of “carrying pollution that cannot be allowed to continue without restriction.”

reverse the trend

Despite the serious current figures, experts acknowledge that progress is being made, albeit “not with the necessary speed and force” and stress that Europe, the US, Japan and China have managed to significantly reduce air pollution in recent years. A report from the University of Chicago, for example, says pollution in China has dropped 42.3% since 2013, and today the average Chinese citizen can expect to live 2.2 more years, although pollution levels in the Asian giant are still at six times higher than in China. WHO guidance.

A street in the Gazipur district of Bangladesh, one of the most polluted areas in the world, mostly in winter, in a February 2022 image.MOHAMMAD PONIR HUSSEIN (REUTERS)

“The reasons for China were economic, business. Because representing a country whose population was drowning was not attractive either from an economic or social point of view… And the positive effect was quick,” confirms Neira.

In the United States, where air pollution levels were once higher than in Southeast Asia, air pollution has been reduced by almost 65% since 1970. In 2021, the average concentration of PM25 particles was 7.8 micrograms per cubic meter, very close to the WHO limit. In Europe, according to the European Environment Agency, air quality-related premature deaths have fallen by 45% between 2005 and 2020 to less than 250,000 per year.

Carol concludes that investing in air quality is essentially synonymous with a particular social culture. “In countries where there is good health, where the authorities are concerned, for example, with issues of gender equality or family reconciliation, air quality is also on the agenda and goes hand in hand. This is not something synonymous with pure economic development, as data from China and the United States showed a few years ago, ”he concludes.

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