Air pollution has become one of the biggest environmental threats to human health, causing seven million premature deaths a year. This has led to WHO adjusting “almost all the air quality guideline levels downwards” in an attempt to protect people from a disease that has a burden on “par with smoking and unhealthy eating.”

The UN body said that exceeding the new levels “is associated with significant risks to health.” The guidelines, that had last been updated in 2005, have been used by governments all over the world to set legally binding standards. The new changes, however, have been made in light of evidence accumulated over 16 years indicating that key air pollutants can affect health even at lower concentrations.

The guidelines recommend lower air quality levels for six pollutants, including ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide.

The other two are PM10 and PM2.5 — particulate matter equal or smaller than 10 and 2.5 microns in diameter.

In 2019, most of the world’s population lived in cities where concentrations exceeded the 2005 WHO guidelines for long-term PM2.5 exposure, with southeast Asia the worst-affected region.

Climate change chief Maria Neira said the WHO was preparing a major report to present in Glasgow to stress the “enormous health benefits” of reducing air pollution.

“You can imagine the incredible number of lives we will save,” she told journalists.

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