Report: Basically No One Is Safe From Air Pollution

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Just about every human on this planet is breathing unhealthy air, according to a new report from the Health Effects Institute, a nonprofit independent research organization. While the report’s central claim—that 95 percent of the world’s population is exposed to air that doesn’t meet the World Health Organization’s guidelines—sounds startling, in reality, this is a problem we already knew about.

WHO recommends people try to breath in an average of no more than 10 micrograms of PM 2.5, the smallest class of particulate matter, per cubic meter of air a year. The daily maximum exposure to ozone should be no more than 100 micrograms per cubic meter, and the list goes on. The consequences of ingesting such pollutants can be lung disease, heart disease, and even cancer.


This is the Health Effects Institute’s second time putting out a State of Global Air report, but it’s the first time they included indoor air pollution, too. The research group calculates its estimates of air pollution exposure through data it pulls from satellite measurements and ground air monitors, as well as data compiled from peer-reviewed studies that already exist.

Overall, the report concluded that nearly the entire global population, or 95 percent of us, are breathing unsafe air. Furthermore, the report estimates there are more than 6 million deaths attributable to air pollution each year, with China and India accounting for more than half.

The most dangerous threat is household air pollution from burning solid fuels, like dung or wood. One in three people in the world are exposed to this type of pollution. No surprise, the industrial burning of coal is a major threat, too. For many communities in the Global South, indoor air pollution eventually leaks into the external environment, worsening the already-dirty air and posing a “double burden,” Dan Greenbaum, the president of the Health Effects Institute, told Earther.

While the report’s conclusions are making waves in the media, it’s important to note the 95 percent figure isn’t far off from the WHO’s own estimate, that 92 percent of people live in places exceeding safe air thresholds. The new report’s numbers are also in line with the 7 million annual deaths the WHO attributes to air pollution. That’s why this information didn’t surprise human geographer Timothy Collins, a professor at the University of Utah who specializes in environmental health.


“The conclusions make sense,” he wrote in an email to Earther.

In the United States, pollution isn’t as bad as it is in other parts of the world, but ozone, which forms when nitrogen oxides mix with warm air, remains a consistent problem here, said Greenbaum.


“Despite the progress we’ve made,” Greenbaum went on, “we’re still seeing significant burdens.”

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About the author

Yessenia Funes

I mostly write about how environmental policy and climate change intersect with race and class though I occasionally write about animals, science, and art, too. We all need an escape, right?

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