Why Should You Care About The new WHO Air Quality Guidelines?

In September 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) formally updated its guidelines regarding air quality for the first time in 16 years. We want to ensure these important updates are clearly understandable to all – and that individuals and businesses alike understand the implications of these new guidelines.

Firstly – What are the WHO Air Quality Guidelines?

The World Health Organization establishes global standards in regards to a wide range of public health matters. By communicating and explaining the health impact of various risks to the public, the organization builds widespread awareness and promotes positive change, policy updates, and proactive defensive measures when necessary.

The purpose of the WHO air quality guidelines, in particular, is to provide global guidance on key air pollutants that pose health risks and establish both short and long-term exposure thresholds based on scientific evidence. The guidelines serve as clear risk indicators and good practice recommendations for individuals and governments to adhere to for minimizing risk to health.

Why Have the WHO Air Quality Guidelines been updated? 

The last WHO air quality guidelines were updated in 2005, making this the first update in 16 years (!)

Over this time, more and more evidence highlighting the risk of air pollution to health has surfaced. After systematically reviewing the accumulated data, the WHO has adjusted many of its AQGs levels downwards, halving the recommended limits for some of the more dangerous pollutants.

How Have the WHO Air Quality Guidelines Been Updated? Key Takeaways 

All the evidence suggests that air pollution is much more harmful than previously thought, and at much lower levels than previously recommended:

  • The annual PM2.5 recommended level was cut from 10 μg/m3 to 5 μg/m3.
  • The daily PM2.5 recommended level was cut from 25 μg/m3 to 15 μg/m3.
  • The annual NO2 recommended level was cut from 40 μg/m3 to 10 μg/m3.

Other pollutants also received stricter limit recommendations in the new guidelines:

  • The annual PM10 recommended level was cut from 20 μg/m3 to 15 μg/m3.
  • The daily PM10 recommended level was cut from 50 μg/m3 to 45 μg/m3.
  • The 8-hour recommended level for O3 remained 100 μg/m3, but a new section was added for a peak season recommended level of 60 μg/m3.

NO2, SO2, and CO now also have new daily recommended levels:

  • The daily NO2 recommended level was established at 25 μg/m3.
  • The daily SO2 recommended level was increased to 40 μg/m3.
  • The daily CO recommended level was established at 4 mg/m3.

One of the most important takeaways from the guideline updates is that they are so drastic, some areas which might previously have been considered ‘healthy’ in terms of air quality will now register as ‘unhealthy’.  To make things a little clearer, our scientific team has put together this amazing little explainer video:

So, What Now?

The guidelines haven’t been updated because of a dramatic change in air pollution itself – it’s more a reflection of our growing understanding of the impact of poor air quality on health.

As air quality awareness continues to rise, we expect to see many countries updating their local air quality index to reflect the new guidelines and this new updated understanding of how dangerous unmanaged air pollution exposure truly is.

According to the WHO, “almost 80% of deaths related to PM2.5 could be avoided in the world if the current air pollution levels were reduced to those proposed in the updated guideline.”

Our mission at BreezoMeter is to protect the lives of billions of people by providing highly accurate air quality information and personalized environmental insights. As such, we support this new attention to air quality from the World Health Organization and will be keeping a close eye on the fall out from this landmark regulatory update in the near and distant future.

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Dr Gabriela Adler
Dr Gabriela Adler Katz

Chief Scientist @BreezoMeter. I hold an MSc & PhD in atmospheric science and formerly worked as a research scientist at NOAA. I believe it is my greatest duty as a scientist to bring science to the people!