New WHO Report: 1.34 million premature deaths from urban air pollution worldwide
1.34 million urban dwellers face premature deaths every year, according to a new report from the World Health Organization (WHO). According to an AP report in Forbes and elsewhere, cities in Iran, India, Pakistan and Mongolia top the list of the world’s most polluted cities.
The WHO report is based on country-reported measurements of airborne particulate matter (PM10, or particles smaller than 10 micrograms per cubic meter). This pollution triggers asthma emergencies, bronchitis, cancer, emphysema and heart disease, in addition to premature deaths.
Here’s the thing to always remember about premature deaths from air pollution—they aren’t just early deaths—they are preventable deaths.
In the U.S., our PM10 levels are at the cleaner end of the spectrum.
How much cleaner? Santa Fe wins the prize at an annual average of 6 micrograms per cubic meter, but even big cities like NYC average below 13 micrograms, well below the WHO recommendation of 20. In contrast, Ahvaz, Iran was the dirtiest city in the study, averaging 372 micrograms per cubic meter.
There are a number of reasons why our air is cleaner than in much of the developing world.
Among the top reasons are our nationally-required ultra-low sulfur diesel fuels (capped at 15 parts-per-million) and the world’s cleanest tailpipe emissions standards for diesel engines, the latest chapters in a 40-year march towards cleaner air made possible by the structure and certainty of the Clean Air Act.
Thanks to these fuels and standards, we are en route to eliminating almost 26,000 premature deaths annually, as yesterday’s dirty diesel trucks, buses, construction and farm engines, locomotives, and marine diesel engines are replaced by newer engines that meet EPA’s current standards.
How much cleaner are today's new engines? Today's new diesel engines are 90-95% cleaner than they were just a few years ago. Not just lower in PM emissions, but also in the emissions of nitrogen oxides that form summertime smog and in the toxic pollutants that trigger cancer and other diseases.
Despite what people might hear in the echo chamber of anti-EPA rhetoric flying around lately, these programs are extremely cost-effective. In fact, both the Bush and Obama administrations have found them to be among the cost-effective steps taken by our government over the past two decades, according to White House Office of Management and Budget studies done during both administrations.
Every dollar spent to implement these standards will yield between $16 and $40 in health benefits. It’s hard to find a better investment in the public’s health.
In contrast, sulfur levels that exceed 5,000 ppm are common in the developing world, and the types of pollution-cutting catalysts and filters that we take for granted simply don’t exist in dozens and dozens of developing nations.
This latest report from the WHO reminds me of three things: first, that we know how to solve our urban vehicle pollution problems; second, that we need to work harder to adapt successful programs from the U.S. and other developed countries to the developing world, especially as they become more and more car-dependent and motorized; and third, that we should be thankful that EPA had the foresight and diligence to adopt the cost-effective fuels and vehicles standards that are making our lives a bit more breathable every day.
Come back and read more in part 2 of this post next week, where I’ll look in more detail at the situation in Mexico and China– two countries where NRDC is working with local partners to reduce urban air pollution.