The World Health Organization reports 13 million people die every year from environmental causes, including more than seven million who are killed each year from exposure to air pollution.

New data released by the World Health Organization confirms that practically the whole world is breathing in unhealthy air. The WHO is calling for urgent action to curb the use of fossil fuels to reduce air pollution levels. This, it says threatens the health of billions of people, leading to the preventable deaths of millions.

Sophie Gumy is technical officer in WHO’s department of environment, climate change and health. She says the data show air quality is poorest notably in the eastern Mediterranean, Southeast Asian, and African regions.

"Most of the seven million deaths, they come from low and middle-income countries, indeed they do," Gumy said. "That does not mean that the high-income countries are not impacted. You know we are using mortality to calculate the impact of air pollution on health. However, we are very much aware that you should actually count for morbidity — all the disease that it creates…There are a lot of costs associated with air pollution, which are not necessarily captured in the deaths.”

The WHO report says significant harm is being done by even low levels of many air pollutants. It says particulate matter can penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream. This can cause cardiovascular disease, stroke, and respiratory impacts. It says nitrogen oxide or NO2 can cause asthma and other respiratory diseases.

The director of WHO’s department of environment, climate change and health, Maria Neira, says particulate matter can affect almost every organ in the body. She calls this a major health issue, one which overlaps with the causes of climate change. As such, she says the causes of air pollution should be tackled in a similar fashion.

“We need to accelerate the transition to clean, modern, sustainable renewable sources of energy," Neira said. "I think we will all agree that our dependence on fossil fuels for generating our energy, needs to change if we want to protect our health.

WHO recommends measures including building safe and affordable public transport systems, implementing stricter vehicle emissions, investing in energy-efficient housing and power generation, and improving industry and municipal waste management.

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