New tool: AirQ+ quantifies health impacts of air pollution


Air pollution is the largest single environmental health risk and a leading cause of disease and death globally, affecting the cardiovascular and respiratory systems. In the WHO European Region, exposure to particulate matter (PM) accounted for almost 600 000 premature deaths in 2012. The costs associated with premature deaths and diseases caused by air pollution in the Region have been estimated to reach US$ 1.6 trillion, corresponding to about one tenth of the gross domestic product of the European Union in 2013. The compelling scientific evidence on the health effects of air pollution and the associated significant burden of disease provides convincing arguments for the need to take further action to reduce emissions and improve air quality. 

AirQ+ tool for policy-makers worldwide

To support experts, policy-makers and stakeholders from the health and other sectors at local and national levels, WHO/Europe has released AirQ+, updated software to quantify the health impacts of air pollution in a given population. AirQ+ meets several requests made in a milestone World Health Assembly resolution, which asked WHO to provide tools that assist decision-makers at all levels of government in addressing the health impact of air pollution from different sources. The estimates generated by AirQ+ are the starting-point to develop or adjust policies and measures that protect people's health. 

Based on recent scientific evidence, AirQ+ is relevant worldwide. It can be used for any city, country or region to estimate:

  • how much of a particular health effect is attributable to selected air pollutants (for example, what proportion of mortality is due to ozone air pollution in a given city); and
  • compared to the current scenario, what would be the change in health effects if air pollution levels changed in the future (for example, how many lives would be saved by a specific reduction in fine PM (PM2.5) levels in a certain area).

Quantifying health effects of specific air pollutants

Specifically, AirQ+ calculates the magnitude of selected health effects associated with exposure to the most relevant air pollutants – those for which there is strong evidence on their adverse effects on health – in a given population. It estimates the health burden associated with long- and short-term exposure to ambient air pollution from PM2.5 and small PM (PM10), ozone, nitrogen dioxide and black carbon, as well as long-term exposure to household air pollution from solid fuel use, for several health endpoints (including mortality for all causes and for selected causes, prevalence and incidence of selected diseases and hospital admissions). 

Updated database of global urban ambient air pollution

Across the WHO European Region, annual urban air pollution levels from PM₁₀ are higher than WHO ambient air quality guidelines of 20 μg/m3 annual mean. Despite being lower than the averages in many other Regions, as well as below the global annual mean of 85 μg/m3, the mean annual level in high-income countries in the European Region is 25 μg/m3; this rises to 55 μg/m3 for low- and middle-income countries. 

This month, WHO has updated its global urban ambient air pollution database, which now includes data on urban air pollution from 3000 cities in 103 countries.

Forthcoming activities 

AirQ+ was showcased on 19 May 2016 in Bonn, Germany, as part of the annual meeting of the Joint Task Force on Health Aspects of Air Pollution (TFH), chaired by WHO within the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution. TFH meeting participants, along with additional invited guests, took part in an interactive training workshop on 20 May to learn to use the new software.

During the Sixty-ninth World Health Assembly taking place on 23–28 May 2016, Member States will discuss a road map for an enhanced global response to the adverse health effects of air pollution.