WHO’s commitment to air quality: from the 1950s to today

WHO/Tina Kiaer

Air pollution from both outdoor and indoor sources represents the single largest environmental risk to health globally. WHO estimates that air pollution exposure was linked to more than 6 million premature deaths in 2012. For nearly 6 decades, WHO has demonstrated its commitment to this public health issue by publishing a series of air quality reports to assess related scientific evidence. The new WHO/Europe publication “Evolution of WHO air quality guidelines: past, present and future” summarizes the history of the development of these air quality guidelines and the role of the scientific evidence that formed the foundation of this work.

The history of WHO air quality guidelines

The first WHO publication to deal with air pollution and its effects on health was “Air pollution”, published in 1958. It accepted the fact that air pollutants could damage health, and represented the first step in establishing the case for setting air quality standards to safeguard health. WHO has published 3 editions of its air quality guidelines since 1987, the most recent in 2006. WHO/Europe has led the work in this area: while the first 2 editions included the words “for Europe” in the title, they achieved the task of setting guidelines at a global level.

Since 2006, WHO has worked on developing separate guidelines for indoor air quality. It published a series of 3 indoor-specific air quality guidelines that provide health-based recommendations on selected chemical air pollutants commonly found in indoor environments, biological agents (dampness and mould) and household fuel combustion.

Updating the WHO global air quality guidelines

In May 2015, the World Health Assembly adopted resolution WHA68.8, entitled “Health and the environment: addressing the health impact of air pollution”. The resolution urged Member States and WHO to redouble their efforts to protect populations from the health risks posed by air pollution. Furthermore, it requested that the Director-General strengthen WHO capacities in the field of air pollution and health, including through the development and regular updating of WHO global air quality guidelines.

WHO/Europe, through its European Centre for Environment and Health in Bonn, Germany, started the process of updating the WHO global air quality guidelines in 2016. This update will face the challenge of ensuring a comprehensive systematic review of the enormous amount of new scientific evidence that has emerged since the last guidelines were published in 2006. In particular, it will address new findings that reveal associations between ambient air pollutants and adverse health effects at concentrations lower than previously identified. The guidelines are expected to provide up-to-date recommendations to continue protecting populations worldwide from the adverse health effects of ambient air pollution.

In addition to updating the guidelines, WHO/Europe supports Member States in improving air quality and protecting the health of their populations by:

  • reviewing the scientific evidence on the health effects of air pollution;
  • providing publications and tools, such as the AirQ+ software for quantifying the health risks of air pollution, and the guidelines themselves;
  • providing evidence-based guidance to policy-makers and public health advice to governments; and
  • chairing the Joint Task Force on the Health Aspects of Air Pollution under the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution.