A new World Health Organization report paints a disturbing picture of the quality of air in cities around the globe. Pollution levels increased 8 percent between 2008 and 2013 worldwide and more than 80 percent of people who live in cities that measure their air quality are exposed to sulfates, nitrates, black carbon and other pollutants at levels that exceed W.H.O. limits.
The data show that cities in less developed countries like China, India and Pakistan have some of the highest levels of pollution. But this is not just a poor-country problem. The air in many European cities like Berlin, London and Paris also exceeds W.H.O. standards, though by a lot less than in places like Beijing, Delhi and Karachi. About 60 percent of European cities exceeded W.H.O. limits, compared with 20 percent in North America. That difference is probably the result of many more diesel-powered vehicles in Europe.
The health organization says air pollution is responsible for about 3 million premature deaths a year. That is about half the number of people killed annually by tobacco-related diseases. Air pollution is linked to increased risk of stroke, heart disease, lung cancer and respiratory diseases.
Governments need to take aggressive steps to address this pollution crisis. They must move away from fuels like coal, diesel and wood and rely more on natural gas and renewable energy like wind and solar. Cities also need to invest more in mass transit to discourage the use of cars.
Addressing local air pollution would have the additional benefit of reducing emissions responsible for climate change. That is particularly important for developing countries because they are most vulnerable to the negative consequences of global warming: rising sea levels, devastating storms and extreme heat. By reducing air pollution in their cities, these countries may also be able to avoid calamities in the future.
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