(CNN) — Only 13 countries and regions in the world had “healthy” air quality last year, according to a new report, as air pollution rose to alarming levels in 2022.
The report from IQAir, a company that monitors air quality worldwide, found that average annual air pollution in nearly 90% of the countries and territories analyzed exceeded air quality guidelines from the World Health Organization, which are designed to help governments formulate Regulations to protect public health.
IQAir analyzed average air quality from 131 countries and territories, and found that only six countries — Australia, Estonia, Finland, Grenada, Iceland and New Zealand — and seven territories in the Pacific and Caribbean, including Guam and Puerto Rico, met WHO standards, which define an average level of air quality. Air pollution of 5 micrograms per cubic meter or less.
Eight countries – Chad, Iraq, Pakistan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Kuwait and India – have poor air quality that far exceeds WHO guidelines with average air pollution of more than 50 micrograms per cubic meter. In ninth place came Egypt (46.5 micrograms per cubic meter), followed by Tajikistan (46 micrograms per cubic meter).
The study specifically looked at fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, which are the smallest pollutants but also the most dangerous. When inhaled, PM2.5 travels deep into lung tissue where it can enter the bloodstream. It comes from sources such as fossil fuel burning, dust storms, and wildfires, and has been linked to a number of health problems including asthma, heart disease, and other respiratory ailments.
The World Health Organization tightened its annual guidelines on air pollution in September 2021, lowering the acceptable amount of particulate matter from 10 to 5 micrograms per cubic metre.
Millions of people die every year from health problems related to air pollution. In 2016, about 4.2 million premature deaths were linked to particulate matter, according to the World Health Organization. If the latest guidelines had been applied at the time, there could have been approximately 3.3 million pollution-related deaths, the World Health Organization estimates.
The report also continues to highlight a troubling inequality: the lack of monitoring stations in developing countries in Africa, South America and the Middle East, leading to a paucity of air quality data in those regions.
Although Africa saw an improvement in the number of countries included in this year’s report compared to 2021, the continent remains by far the least represented. According to IQAir, only 19 out of 54 African countries have sufficient data available from their monitoring stations.
Every time you add a new country that lacked air quality data — as it did with Chad in 2021 — those countries inevitably end up on the list most polluted, said Glory Dolphin Hames, IQAir North America CEO.
Hames told CNN: “If you look at the so-called satellite or model data, Africa should be probably the most polluted continent on the planet, but we don’t have enough data. What that means is there’s a lot of data that we need to be able to truly one of the most polluted countries and cities in the world.”
But she said one of the biggest barriers right now is “the way governments currently monitor air quality”. Hams said most governments tend to invest in instruments that fail to accurately measure fine particles in the air.
In the United States, the report found that air pollution improved significantly last year compared to 2021 due to a relatively mild wildfire season.
China, which for decades was near the top of the worst air pollution list, continued to show an improvement in air quality in 2022. Approximately 64% of the 524 cities analyzed in mainland China saw a decrease in PM2.5 annually.
However, IQAir notes that coal use in the country remains a major concern for climate and the environment, and despite the improvement, none of China’s cities have actually met the WHO’s annual guidelines.
Countries are learning from each other, Hames said, noting that countries with the best air quality, for example, are taking specific actions to transition from polluting industries to greener forms of energy, such as solar and wind power.
He added that it is also important to expand air quality monitoring networks, especially in the majority disadvantaged areas. For example, despite Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, the IQAir report shows that Ukraine has expanded its air monitoring networks, collecting data from almost three times as many cities in 2022 than in 2021.
“What we’ve learned is that what gets measured gets done,” Hames said. “We need to collect more data. We need to inform people of this information, and it needs to be free and available, so they can make more informed choices.”
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