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Can you hold your breath until clean air is made a priority?

We are all getting very aware that the quality of the air we are breathing is just getting poorer. This is becoming of growing importance to us, not just to live but to be able to enjoy life without this concern that our health is at risk.

“Air pollution threatens us all,” says Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO, “if we don’t take urgent action on air pollution, we will never come close to achieving sustainable development”.

Were you aware that today 9 out of 10 people breathe air containing high levels of pollutants according to data supplied by the World Health Organization (WHO)? This is a real worry to us all. What do we actually know about air quality and the pollutants that are in our air that we are breathing, every day of our lives?

…if we don’t take urgent action to air pollution, we will never come close to achieving sustainable development

WHO estimates around 8 million people die every year from exposure to fine particles in polluted air that is penetrating into our lungs and cardiovascular system. It contributes to rising strokes, heart disease, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases and respiratory infections.

4.2 million3.8 million91%
deaths every year as a result of exposure to ambient (outdoor) air pollutiondeaths every year as a result of household exposure to smoke from dirty cookstoves and fuelsof the world’s population lives in a place where air quality exceeds WHO guidelines
Source: World Health Organization

Ambient air pollution caused some 4.2 million deaths in 2016, while household air pollution from those polluting fuels and technologies caused an estimated 3.8 million in the same period. WHO suggests that air pollution may be the greatest environmental risk to health in the world today. 

What is shocking is knowing who is at a higher risk. Although 90% of air-pollution-related deaths occur in low-and middle-income countries, none of us can avoid “bad air”. Especially if we live in Asia, Africa, many Eastern Mediterranean regions ─ but equally in parts of Europe and the Americas ─ we are at higher risk and exposure.

Today the debate is all around reversing this, and the most important focus is on the sources of how we generate our energy. The more we rely on coal and gas generation and diesel generators and not solar, wind, hydropower and smart energy solutions we continue to “pollute.” We need to consistently look at renewables, called clean energies, as the future of our energy generation. We need to bring down the pollutants within our air. Any fossil burning ─ including the petrol and diesel vehicles ─ needs radical containing and phasing out to bring our air quality back to better levels than we are breathing today.

WHO is measuring the ambient air quality in our cities today, where 54% of us, globally reside. Presently 4,300 cities in 108 countries are participating in this and the database collects the annual mean concentrates of fine particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5). PM2.5 includes pollutants, such as sulfate, nitrates, ammonia, sodium chloride, mineral dust and black carbon, which pose the greatest risks to human health, in each of these cities.

Out of this, we know we have serious problems. WHO air quality recommendations call for countries to reduce their air pollution to annual mean values of 20 μg/m3 (for PM10) and 10 μg/m3 (for PM2.5). It is the fine particle matter < 2.5 μm (PM2.5) that is penetrating into our lungs and other organs. It is getting past our natural defences by passing through the respiratory tract as the visual below shows.

Through the work undertaken by WHO, we only have 20% of the urban population covered by their cities report that have the level of WHO air quality guidelines of PM2.5 they are recommending. This means 80% of us that live in cities are exposed to poor quality air. In many of our developing cities this can be 4 to 15 times higher than the guideline; putting many at risk of long-term health problems. Also, ground-level ozone (that is produced by the atmospheric interaction of the mix of air pollutants) reduces crop productivity in places of the highest crop need and adds to our growing concerns of food security.

Image of respiratory system
PM2.5 is widely regarded as the pollutant with the most health impact of all commonly measured air pollutants, due to its small size it is able to penetrate deep into the human respiratory system

The important point is that air pollution does not recognize borders, it crosses over them.

We are all beginning to recognize that there are long-term effects of having such pollutants in our air. Major sources of air pollution from particulate matter include the energy chosen by households, industry, the agriculture and transport sectors, many highly reliant on coal-fired power plants or locally available wood sources. We need to invest in clean sources of energy.

In some regions, we face growing sand and desert dust from increasingly drier regions, increased waste burning and deforestation. In large parts of the world, there are many that still rely on wood stoves or gas burners. The fumes emitted are from fossil-related fuels and people are unaware of the risk they are taking by breathing in deadly smoke. We are finally recognizing that air quality is also heavily influenced by natural elements such as geographic, meteorological and seasonal factors. For many, our planet is under crisis.

As our cities record air quality and become more open to report the air quality, the movement at a local and national government level is influencing policymaking. We are seeing concerted efforts to find alternative solutions in transport, energy, waste management, urban planning and agriculture. As communities begin to feel or become aware of the potential effects of polluted air, cities are implementing alternatives to the ways we live.

As we all become aware, we need to find ways to accept change and this is at an individual and community level. We must realistically move away from burning fossil fuels and waste and embrace a different way of life built upon the WHO recommendations.


  • Push towards solar, wind and hydropower, reducing reliance on coal and other fossil burning materials
  • Prioritize walking, cycling and encourage more use of public transport. By doing this we can increasingly shift from fossil-burning cars to hybrids or electric cars
  • Continue to improve the energy efficiency of homes to reduce heating needs and avoid coal and wood-burning inside, especially when we have economic alternatives
  • Promote waste reduction and use incineration only where emission controls can monitor this
  • Reduce the burning of stubble (slash and burn) in fields, especially upwind of cities
  • Create those precious green spaces to help remove pollutants.
  • Deter polluting vehicles coming daily into the city to cut the levels of nitrogen dioxide. pollution
  • Retrofit buses, heavy good vehicles and cabs, scrapping older more polluting vehicles

Improving air quality is simply stopping pollution at its source by radically altering the way we live, work and produce what we need.

Although we can argue that today, as individuals, most sources of outdoor air pollution are well beyond the control of ourselves and it needs concerted coordinated community momentum to change how we go about our daily business. Yet we, as individuals become increasingly important as part of the “global” community to be aware and expect concerted action, by all levels of policy-makers working in sectors like transport, energy, waste management, urban planning, and agriculture to provide a basic human need, clear air.

Los Angeles

Los Angeles has one of the best air quality ratings in the world at 12ug/m3 (annual PM2.5 average).

Learn more

Already 54% of the global population resides in cities and this is forecast to rise to an estimated 68% by 2050 and cities are faced with increasing burdens to radically change. We increasingly need to focus on cities, turning them into nicer, smarter places to be. We talk today about “Smart Cities”, in many ways we should be talking about “intelligent cities”. The application of “new” technologies becomes critical to allow many of the necessary changes to take place, as they offer different solutions than in the past. Many of these I plan to bring out in the forthcoming weeks and months.

We require our cities to deepen the commitments to not just monitor but really reduce our air pollution. Can we hold our breath any longer? No, we need to become aware of what we are breathing today, it is simply not healthy for us. To recognize our change in “lifestyle” is going to be driven by a change in our habits and expectations. We cannot wait, for our breathing to be uncomfortable or painful. We need to invest in breathing and living differently; less reliant on past habits and investment decisions.

BY Paul Hobcraft

Paul offers views that have an outside-in perspective having lived in different parts of the world. Presently based in Switzerland, where his principal focus is mostly on Asian and European markets, developing his innovation practice and advisory work.



air quality / climate change / green cities / IoT / sustainability

We’d love to hear from you

Siemens are at the forefront of everything Smart Cities. To learn more or make a suggestion please get in touch.


Explore the cities

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