In 2005, the World Health Organization (WHO) released its most recent guidelines on safe air quality and pollution levels. The problem? More recent research shows these WHO air quality recommendations are actually NOT safe.
What Are the WHO Recommended Safe Air Pollution Levels?
The WHO gives recommendations for 5 air pollutants: PM2.5, PM10, O3, NO2, SO2. For particulate matter (PM), recommendations are given in micrograms for daily and yearly exposure.
UPDATE: In September of 2021, the WHO finally updated their air quality guidelines based on new research on the dangers of air pollution for the first time in over 16 years. The recommended levels in this article are prior to the 2021 update. Check our article covering the updated WHO air quality guidelines for the latest numbers.
What’s Wrong With the WHO Recommended Safe Air Pollution Levels?
1) New research makes these guidelines outdated
The WHO air pollution guidelines were last updated in 2005. Since 2005, there have been many major new findings on the effects of air pollution on our health. These findings include strong links of higher mortality and cardiovascular rates at pollution levels below the recommended limits. We have also learned much more on how pollution affects infertility, new born’s health, and brain health.
During the years of 1987 to 2005 (in which the WHO made two revisions to their guidelines), there were approximately 130,000 studies on the effects of air pollution on our health.
Since the WHO’s last update of their air quality guidelines in 2005, there have been 177,000 new studies.
At the time of the last update, the known effects of air pollution were vastly underestimated. The recommendations are long-due for an update to reflect the new research.
2) There is actually no “safe level” of air pollution
Research shows that there is actually no “safe level”of air pollution. Even small amounts of particulate pollution increases your risk of various diseases and death. Giving “safe level” recommendations for air pollution can give people a false sense of safety.
In fact, research shows that the pollution at low levels has the greatest impact on our bodies.
3) The WHO consulted public health experts in 2015 who recommended revising the safe level limits
In 2015, the WHO organized an expert consultation in Germany to review their air quality guidance. The experts recommended revising the guidelines of all 5 pollutants in the chart above (PM2.5, PM10, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide). The experts pointed to the new findings since 2005 on air pollution as reasoning for the needed updates.
Even after recommendations from the experts, the WHO still made no updates to their air quality guidelines.
So, What Should the WHO Recommended Safe Air Quality Limits Be?
As we now know, particulate pollution is similar to lead in that there is no safe level of intake. Even low levels can be consequential to your health. The WHO has emphasized this when discussing safe levels of lead intake and in their lead guidelines. Below is what the WHO discussed in regards to lead intake:
I believe the WHO should update their air quality guidelines in a similar way, putting more emphasis on recent research showing levels below these “safe” levels are actually not safe. Providing recommendations for safe air quality without clarifying the reality that recent science has proved is misleading.