Some 90% of Countries Exceed WHO Air Pollution Guidelines; Report Includes “Citizen Science” Data from Low-Cost Monitors
IQAir air pollution map for PM 2.5 (2022). Only countries in blue meet the WHO guidelines.

Ninety percent of 131 countries exceeded the World Health Organization’s (WHO) air pollution guidelines for fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) in 2022, according to a new report that combines data from official monitoring stations and “citizens science” monitors around the world. .

The report was the fifth such World Air Quality Report to be released Tuesday by the Swiss firm managing the air quality monitoring site IQAir, which crowd sources real-time monitoring data from both citizen scientsts and more official sources. Altogether, that includes data from over 30,000 air quality monitoring sensors and stations across 7,323 locations in 131 countries. 

However, critics point out that the reporting combines data from low-cost monitoring sensors and stations with the more robust monitoring by governments and research institutions, which is typically reported on by WHO and research institutions. That, mix, some scientists and researchers, contend, can point to general trends, but it is not always reliable or consistent.

“The IQ database raises awareness and that is OK, but the transparency of the data is not a given. It is what it is,” one expert, who asked not to be named, told Health Policy Watch.

Low cost monitors becoming more reliable

On the other hand,  low-cost air quality monitors are becoming increasingly reliable, as well as popular – to cover critical gaps in coverage in low- and middle-income countries that cannot afford more expensive tools, supporters of the initiative maintain.

“In 2022, more than half of the world’s air quality data was generated by grassroots community efforts. When citizens get involved in air quality monitoring, we see a shift in awareness and the joint effort to improve air quality intensifies. We need governments to monitor air quality, but we cannot wait for them. Air quality monitoring by communities creates transparency and urgency. It leads to collaborative actions that improves air quality,” states Frank Hammes, Global CEO, IQAir.  The firm’s for-profit branch also markets air purifiers, filters and face masks.

PM 2.5 is made up of tiny particles in the air, including sulfates, nitrates, black carbon, and ammonium, which are considered among the most health-hazardous air pollutants.  PM 2.5 concentrations are also considered to be the best metric for estimating health impacts from air pollution. In line with this, updated WHO guidelines recommend that countries should ensure an annual average of five micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3) or less to protect people’s health – a measure that even high income countries with strong air quality management systems often fail to meet.

Only six countries meet WHO guidelines

In fact, according to the data published by the company, only Australia, Estonia, Finland, Grenada, Iceland, and New Zealand met the WHO guideline in 2022.  

Countries with the most polluted air were Chad, (89.7 µg/m3, over 17 times higher than the WHO guideline), Iraq (80.1 µg/m3), Pakistan (70.9 µg/m3), Bahrain (66.6 µg/m3) and Bangladesh (65.8 µg/m3). However in the case of arid states in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, dust storms can also be a huge factor in pollution levels, experts say.  

Pakistan’s Lahore was the most polluted metropolitan area in 2022, while eight of the world’s 10 worst polluted cities were in Central and South Asia.

The most polluted city in the US was Coffeyville, Kansas, while 10 of the 15 most polluted cities in the US were in California. Las Vegas was deemed the cleanest major city.

WHO has not published country-by-country averages for the past several years – so it is difficult to make comparisons between the IQAir’s “citizen science” findings and more official sources of data. 

Six million die annually from air pollution

Air pollution is the world’s largest environmental health threat, killing an estimated 6-7 million people each year, according to WHO and the Global Burden of Disease report 2019.

The total economic cost equates to over $8 trillion dollars, which is over 6% of the global annual GDP, according to the World Bank. Exposure to air pollution causes and aggravates several health conditions which include, but are not limited to, asthma, cancer, lung illnesses, heart disease, and premature mortality.

“Sustained exposure to PM2.5 concentrations above the annual average guideline level result in a chronic impact on individuals’ respiratory and circulatory systems leading to long-term complications such as heart disease and decreased lung function,” according to the report.

While the number of countries monitoring air has steadily increased over the past five years, there were “significant gaps in government-operated regulatory instrumentation in many parts of the world”, according to IQAir. 

“Low-cost air quality monitors sponsored and hosted by citizen scientists, researchers, community advocates, and local organizations have proven to be a valuable tool to reduce the massive inequalities in air monitoring networks across the world, until sustainable regulatory air quality monitoring networks can be established,” it added.

Only 19 African countries had the ability to monitor their air quality, and only 156 stations producing all the included data for the continent,

“In 2022, more than half of the world’s air quality data was generated by grassroots community efforts,” said IQAir CEO Frank Hammes. “We need governments to monitor air quality, but we cannot wait for them.”

 Aidan Farrow, Greenpeace International’s air quality scientist, said that “too many people around the world don’t know that they are breathing polluted air”. 

“Air pollution monitors provide hard data that can inspire communities to demand change and hold polluters to account, but when monitoring is patchy or unequal, vulnerable communities can be left with no data to act on. Everyone deserves to have their health protected from air pollution,” added Farrow, whose organisation collaborated with IQAir on the report.

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