WHO Air Quality Guidelines: One year on, what has changed?

A year ago today, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced a new set of guidelines for improving air quality across the globe. The launch of the new Global Air Quality Guidelines (AQGs) marked an ambitious step forward in the mission to improve people’s health – but one year on, the EU is still dragging its heels.

On September 22, 2021, the World Health Organization updated their Air Quality Guidelines (AQG)s for the first time since 2005.

The Global Guidelines are a set of science-based recommendations, based on experts’ evaluation of the latest scientific evidence, for maximum amounts of certain air pollutant concentrations. They focus on the so-called “classical pollutants”: particulate matter (PM₂.₅ and PM₁₀), ozone (O₃), nitrogen dioxide (NO₂), sulfur dioxide (SO₂) and carbon monoxide (CO).

While the Guidelines are not legally binding, they do serve as global recommendations for national, regional and local authorities on how to protect their citizen’s health through the reduction of air pollution.

The need for air quality action

Air pollution is responsible for around 400,000 premature deaths in the EU every year and for extensive damage to ecosystems and biodiversity. Even though air pollution has decreased in most European countries over the past two decades, it is still one of the leading causes of both chronic and serious diseases such as asthma, cardiovascular problems and lung cancer.

The OECD attributes a 4.9% loss in GDP across the impact of PM2.5 and ozone.This loss is primarily attributable to the impact of these pollutants on mortality, along with lower quality of life, lower labour productivity and higher spending on health.

According to a 2021 report from the European Environment Agency (EEA), if the latest air quality guidelines from the World Health Organisation were followed by EU members, the number of fatalities due to air pollution could be cut in half.

The report went on to state that air pollution remains the biggest environmental threat to human health in Europe. With many clear and stark warnings about the negative effects of air pollution, it now begs the question – what is Europe doing to clean up our air?

Europe dawdles

The 2008 EU Ambient Air Quality Directives (AAQDs) constitute a cornerstone of the EU’s clean air policy, setting air quality standards for the protection of people’s health and the reduction of environmental damage. However, the current EU air quality standards are both insufficient and outdated.

A briefing released last year by the European Environment Agency stated that Europe’s air pollution continues to be too high in most EU Member States.

It also stated that EU air quality standards are even less strict than the 2005 edition of the WHO’s air quality guidelines – indicating that the gap has only widened since last year’s updated guidelines.  

A breath of fresh air?

It is more important than ever for Europe to quickly arrive at a revised and science-based law that works for the health of people, the environment and climate. A revision of the Ambient Air Quality Directive later this year is expected to align the EU standards with the WHO recommendations, whilst also ensuring a solid and coherent enabling framework – both of which are crucial to ensure effective and lasting change at Member State level.

This change could strengthen the EU’s air quality standards and guarantee better air quality management which would signify an important step forward in ensuring that people’s right to clean air is respected. The new laws must reflect the latest scientific evidence on the health and environmental impacts of air pollution, and also support actions to cut pollution at source.

However, if the revision is to be truly ambitious, by considering key health and environmental threats, the scope of the new Directive should also be extended to cover ammonia, mercury, black carbon and ultrafine particles – all of which have serious detrimental effects on the air that Europeans are currently breathing.  

The upcoming months are set to play a pivotal role in determining how serious the European Commission’s zero-pollution ambition is and how this will be reflected into the soon to be proposed new air quality standards.

Citizens will now be waiting with bated breath to understand just how determined Europe and its Member States will be in ensuring a healthy population and environment.