WHO launches more stringent Air Quality Guidelines
At the end of September 2021, the World Health Organisation (the WHO) cut its recommended limits for air pollution for the first time in 16 years. In doing so, the WHO’s aim is to encourage nations to adopt cleaner energy sources as well as preventing illness and death attributed to air pollution. The WHO has advised its 194 member states to slash the maximum levels of several pollutants, including nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter, both of which are found in fossil fuel emissions.
Air pollution has been associated with a huge range of health issues, including asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cancers and pre-eclampsia. Globally, air pollution kills at least 7 million people prematurely each year.
In the UK, 40,000 early deaths a year are linked to air pollution and 75% of air quality reporting zones still suffer from air pollution that is above legal limits. In December 2020, the inquest into the death of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, a nine-year-old girl who lived close to the South Circular road in Lewisham, found that she was exposed to levels of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter that exceeded WHO guidelines. On 22 September, the WHO launched their new Air Quality Guidelines (AQGs).
The WHO AQGs recommend air quality limits for several pollutants known to negatively affect human health including particulate matter, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide. The AQGs are a tool for policy-makers to guide both legislation and policy to reduce levels of air pollutants and the resulting risk of disease from exposure to such pollutants. It is important to note that the AQGs, like all WHO guidelines, are not legally binding.
The UK government has not yet committed to the implementation of legally binding air quality targets in line with the AQGs. This is despite the clear indication from the Coroner in the inquest into the death of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah that doing so would reduce the number of air pollution related deaths. The UK government intends to launch a consultation on new legal targets for air pollution but not before January 2022, with resulting legislation not expected until October 2022. The UK government says that it has “used the World Health Organisation guidelines on PM2.5 to inform its ambitions in shaping these targets” but has so far avoided a firm commitment towards implementing the AQGs as new targets.
For the first time since 2005, the WHO have tightened their AQGs with the aim of encouraging nations to adopt cleaner energy sources, as well as preventing illness and death attributed to air pollution. The WHO has advised its 194 member states to slash the maximum levels of several pollutants, including nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter, both of which are found in fossil fuel emissions.
The new guideline values for annual concentrations of PM2.5 are now twice as stringent and for nitrogen dioxide they are four times more stringent. It was reported that some experts say these stricter limits emphasise that there is no safe level of air pollution.
In 2019, 99% of the global population already lived in areas where the WHO Air Quality guidelines were not being met. As such, while the new limits are welcome, what is now needed is domestic legislative change to enshrine these targets in law. The new AQGs have been published prior to the upcoming UK government consultation so can – and should – be fed into this process.
Law firm Hausfeld is working with environmental law charity ClientEarth to explore a possible new type of legal action against the UK Government, for failing to ensure everyone living in the UK can breathe safer, cleaner air.
We believe that individuals who are suffering as a result of air pollution deserve justice and the chance to push for change. We want to make sure that people whose lives have been impacted by the toxic legacy of dirty air are compensated for the harm they have suffered and can push for action to better protect them and others going forward. For further information, and to express your interest in the claim please see our website and FAQ section.
With thanks to Emilio Graham for co-authoring this piece.