Almost nobody on Earth is safe from air pollution, study says

Nearly the entire global population is regularly exposed to unsafe levels of air pollution, according to a study published this week.

Researchers at Monash University in Australia analyzed air pollution data from across the globe between 2000 and 2019 to estimate global daily exposure to PM 2.5, a type of air pollution made up of inhalable particles 2.5 micrometers or smaller. The particles can enter the bloodstream through the lungs and contribute to an array of health problems, including premature death, asthma, and heart disease.

The team found that between 2000-2019, only 0.18% of the world’s land area and only 0.001% of the world’s population — about 78,000 people — had annual PM 2.5 exposure lower than the 2021 air pollution guidelines set by the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO’s guidelines recommend that a person’s annual exposure to PM2.5 should not exceed 5 micrograms per cubic meter.

“Almost no one is safe from air pollution,” said Yuming Guo, an author on the study and a professor of environmental health at Monash University. “All people might face serious air pollution.”

The new findings come as the United States and countries around the world are wrestling with how to regulate harmful air pollution, which was estimated to cause almost 7 million premature deaths in 2019, according to one study. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently proposed lowering its standards for annual exposure to PM2.5 from the current standard of 12 micrograms per cubic meter to between 9 and 10 micrograms per cubic meter, a measurement it said reflects “the latest health data and scientific evidence.”