More than nine out of every 10 people on the planet live in areas where air pollution breaches official safety limits – and millions of people are dying as a result, according to new research by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
An interactive map produced by WHO shows vast areas of the world are bathed in tiny particles from pollutants such as sulphate, nitrates and black carbon, which can penetrate deep into the lungs and beyond, leading to an array of deadly diseases. China, India, eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa are among the worst affected regions.
Heart attacks, strokes and lung cancer can all be caused by the particles, known as PM2.5 and PM10, which also increase the risk of getting an acute respiratory infection.
While some of the dust is natural in places such as the Sahara, much comes from the burning of fossil fuels, also the cause ofglobal warming.
Almost all of England is above the WHO safety limit with places where the air is considered safe to breathe largely confined to the rural north-west and parts of Cornwall and Devon.
By contrast the vast majority of Scotland’s air is below the limits, except for the central belt, particularly Glasgow. Northern Ireland is also largely clear, apart from Belfast and a strip down the east coast.
Air pollution – indoor and outdoor – was linked to the deaths of some 6.5 million people worldwide in 2012, representing more than 11 per cent of all deaths and making it one of the greatest threats to human health.
Of those, three million were “solely attributable” to the quality of outdoor air. The WHO said an estimated 16,355 British people died in that year as a direct result of outdoor air pollution.
Dr Flavia Bustreo, assistant director general at the WHO, said: “For people to be healthy, they must breathe clean air from their first breath to their last.”
The report, Ambient air pollution: A global assessment of exposure and burden of disease, admitted there were “significant uncertainties” in the data about air pollution but said the report represented “the best evidence available to date”.
But one thing appears clear – just how bad breathing polluted air is for human health.