WHO Announces Air Pollution Summit in Accra to Tackle ‘Public Health Emergency’
Accra, Ghana: Traffic, waste burning and desert dust all combine to make air pollution a burgeoning problem in this fast-growing city.

The World Health Organization (WHO) will host a summit on air pollution in Accra, Ghana in 2024, the organization announced on Thursday. The summit will be the second ever to address air pollution, which is responsible for millions of premature deaths each year, and the first to be held in Africa.

The announcement was made on Thursday by Dr Maria Neira, Director of the Public Health, Environment and Social Determinants of Health Department at WHO. The UN health agency considers air pollution “one of the biggest public health emergencies” facing the world, said Neira. 

“Every single day we have news, scientific evidence and papers published demonstrating even more damage caused by exposure to air pollution,” said Neira. “In addition to the death, which is already horribly dramatic, we need to keep in mind that we are talking about chronic diseases… [that] take away quality of life and bring costs for health systems.” 

The announcement of the summit was made on the International Day of Clean Air and Blue Skies, established by the UN General Assembly in 2019 to raise awareness of the health risks of air pollution. 

Air pollution is responsible for nearly 7 million premature deaths each year.

The high-level meeting planned for Accra reflects the growing global recognition that air pollution, once seen as an environmental issue, is now a serious health concern. The summit is expected to be attended by government representatives, businesses, civil society organizations and other stakeholders from around the world.

“Every year, air pollution is killing more people than COVID killed,” Dr Ardvind Kumar, a lung specialist based in New Delhi and founder of the Lung Care Foundation, told a World Bank Panel on Thursday. “COVID caused death immediately, directly. Air pollution causes slow, indirect death, and hence does not get the attention.” 

“The world needs to respond to air pollution in the same that that we responded to COVID,” said Kumar. 

Air pollution will be high on the agenda at the upcoming UN climate summit in Dubai, which will kick off in November. The summit will be the first UN climate negotiation to directly consider health as a factor in the climate crisis. 

G20 to tackle air pollution

A thick layer of smog hangs over the Indian capital, New Delhi, which will be the site of the G20 summit that begins on Saturday.

Air pollution is also expected to be a topic of discussion at the G20 summit in New Dehli which will take place this weekend.

Ten Indian cities are in the world’s top 15 cities with the highest levels of air pollution, according to IQ Air, an air quality platform based on official and crowdsourced data. The health effects on Indian citizens have become a critical political issue in the host country as it grapples with reducing pollution in its cities. 

“Thirty years back when I started as a lung cancer surgeon, I would see 95% smokers,” said Kumar. “But today, 50% of my patients are ‘so-called’ non-smokers. I use the words ‘so-called’ because I believe that in a polluted country, there is no true non-smoker.”

The WHO estimates that 99% of people globally breathe unsafe air. South Asia faces the world’s heaviest health toll from air pollution. This cuts the life expectancy of the average South Asian by about five years, leading to annual costs estimated at more than 10% of regional GDP.

“Everyone has a right to live in a clean and healthy environment, and air pollution violates this right for 99% of the world’s population,” said UN Environment Programme Director Inger Andersen. 

The air shared by countries in the Indo-Gangetic Plain and Himalayan foothills – including India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh – is the most harmful worldwide, according to the World Bank. In some of the region’s most populated cities, air pollution is up to 20 times the WHO guideline.

“In Delhi, a nebulizer has become ubiquitous in every household,” Kumar told the World Bank panel. “I never heard this term when I was a child. But today, when they start getting breathless, every child says to themselves, ‘Oh, I’m going to get the nebulizer’.”

PM2.5, the primary harmful form of air pollution, is generated from a variety of sources, including car emissions, forest fires, and industrial activity. It can enter the lungs and bloodstream, causing a range of health problems, including respiratory infections, heart disease, and cancer.

Global air pollution heat map published by Swiss air quality technology company IQAir.

Black carbon, another major type of air pollution made up of soot and other particles that can enter the lungs and bloodstream, is produced by the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and wood.

“We’ve tended to express health impacts through the number of premature deaths. But our day-to-day quality of life is affected, too,” said Martina Otto, who leads the Climate and Clean Air Coalition convened by the UN Environment Programme. “Exposure at any level can have health implications that impair quality of life and come with costs for the individual, our societies and our economies.”  

Air pollution disproportionately impacts women, children and the elderly. Low- and middle-income countries also suffer the highest exposures. 

The air pollution crisis affects everyone – even children who have not yet entered the world, said Kumar. 

“The bad effects of air pollution do not wait for us to be born, it actually starts even before we are born,” said Kumar. “Pregnant mothers who are in polluted cities, when they breathe polluted air, the pollutants go through to the foetus through the placenta.

“Newborns start smoking, figuratively, from the very first breath of their life,” he said. 

Nairobi kicks off World Clean Air Day with a new wall mural by local artist @bankslaveone highlighting the importance of clean transport and improved air quality for children’s health.

Image Credits: WHO/Blink Media, Nana Kofi Acquah, Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy, Clean Air Fund/@bankslaveone.

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