People in low-income urban areas are the most impacted by increases in air pollution levels, said the World Health Organization (WHO). More than 80 percent of people living in cities are exposed to unhealthy quality levels. The database now includes 3000 cities in 103 countries.

98 percent of cities in low- and middle-income countries with more than 100,000 inhabitants do not meet WHO standards. The same percentage goes down to 56 percent in high-income countries, according to the latest urban air quality database carried out by WHO.

The cases of respiratory, heat stroke and infectious diseases like Zika virus, dengue fever, and cholera are increasing around the world as global temperatures rise. Photo credit: Sanjeev Verma / Hindustan Times via Getty Images / Vox

The Geneva-headquartered organization has been updating the database during the last two years. It currently covers 3000 cities in 103 countries, which measure air pollution levels. Many cities are also evaluating the health impact of contaminated air.

Air pollution may lead to increases in the risk of stroke, heart disease and lung cancer. It also boosts chronic and acute respiratory diseases such as asthma. It is considered as a major cause of disease and death, said Dr. Flavia Bustreo, WHO Assistant-Director General.

“It is good news that more cities are stepping up to monitor air quality, so when they take actions to improve it they have a benchmark. When dirty air blankets our cities the most vulnerable urban populations—the youngest, oldest and poorest—are the most impacted,” said Bustreo.

Low-income countries are the most affected by air pollution, but there’s still data to collect

WHO collected data of small and fine particulate matter, in 795 cities from 67 countries, between 2008 and 2013. Measurements include pollutants such as sulfate, nitrates, and black carbon. Those components affect the lungs and the cardiovascular system.

Overall, air pollution levels grew 8 percent. Countries with lower levels are generally located in Europe, the Americans and the Western Pacific Region, said WHO. Low and middle-income countries in the Eastern Mediterranean, South-East Asia, are the most affected.

Annual levels in poor regions surpass WHO standards by up to five to 10 times. The United Nations agency has not been able to collect enough data from African countries. However, sparse available data demonstrates that air pollution levels there, are above the median.

Every year, air pollution causes more than 3 million premature deaths worldwide

Air pollution represents “the greatest environmental risk to health”. WHO said that individuals, national and international policymakers should encourage the use of clean transport, and efficient energy.

Dr. Maria Neira, WHO director at the Department of Public Health, said urban air pollution is increasing at alarming rates, affecting human health. However, awareness is rising and cities have started monitoring contamination levels, she said in a press release issued Thursday.

Air quality is directly related to a decrease of respiratory and cardiovascular disease, Neira Said. Cities and national governments should consider air quality as a health priority, said WHO’s Dr. Carlos Dora. 

“When air quality improves, health costs from air pollution-related diseases shrink, worker productivity expands and life expectancy grows. Reducing air pollution also brings an added climate bonus, which can become a part of countries’ commitments to the climate treaty.” Said Dora. 

Source: World Health Organization