WHO pollution guidelines could save 2.1 million lives per year

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New Study Says Global Pollution Guidelines Could Save Millions of Lives

Weather.com -- Improved air quality — both in heavily polluted and relatively clean places — could save millions of lives per year, researchers report in a new paper.

A team of environmental engineering and public health researchers designed a model to quantify how changes in outdoor air pollution levels would affect related deaths from causes including heart attack, stroke, lung disease, lung cancer and respiratory infections. The results, they say, are dramatic.

"We're a bit surprised at how much it matters to clean up air pollution, even in comparatively clean places like the U.S.," lead author Joshua S. Apte of the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas, Austin, told weather.com. "The moral from the work that's quite interesting is how large the health benefits of cleaning up air pollution are."

Still, the developing world has an outsize effect.

"A huge fraction of the global burden of disease for outdoor air pollution is from India and China alone," he said. "If those two countries alone met the [World Health Organization] targets for outdoor air quality ... worldwide [deaths] would be reduced by 70 percent."

Currently, more than 3.2 million individuals die each year because of the effects of outdoor air pollution, according to WHO data.

In the past, Apte has examined air pollution in the developing world and how it affects population health. But the new data support the idea that developed countries could vastly benefit from following the WHO suggested guideline of 10 mg per cubic meter, as the maximum 8-hour concentration not to be exceeded, as well.

Currently, the Environmental Protection Agency mandates a standard of 12 mg per cubic meter. There's emerging evidence that air pollution harms health at much lower levels than this current standard, Apte said — an area that requires more study.

"We need to know what the health effects are at truly clean levels," he said.

The results shed light on the idea that air quality is paramount to improved public health, particularly as climate change increases concerns over ozone pollution in particular. But the results don't have a practical application just yet.

"The other thing we need to take into account are what are the strategies that are economically feasible to achieve cleaner air," Apte said. "What's the least-cost, fastest way to get toward better and better outdoor air quality?"

The journal Environmental Science & Technology published the paper, "Addressing Global Mortality from Ambient PM2.5," online on June 16.

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