Air pollution has become one of the biggest threats to public health worldwide. Now, the World Health Organisation (WHO) brought together government officials and health experts in the first-ever international air pollution conference. This silent public health emergency is killing 7 million people every year and damaging the health of many more.

Today, breathing polluted air is as likely to kill you as tobacco use. After years of education, the world is making progress in the war against tobacco. Unfortunately for all of us, air pollution is getting worse and is killing more people year after year.

“The world has turned the corner on tobacco,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the WHO wrote for Guardian. “Now it must do the same for the “new tobacco”, the toxic air that billions breathe every day.”

Last week, WHO gathered relevant parties from more than 100 countries to place the issue on the global agenda. On the first Global conference on air pollution and health at least 19 national governments, 8 cities and 20 NGOs submitted individual commitments to act against air pollution.

“No one, rich or poor, can escape air pollution. A clean and healthy environment is the single most important precondition for ensuring good health,” wrote Ghebreyesus. “By cleaning up the air we breathe, we can prevent or at least reduce some of the greatest health risks.”

The defeating fact is that estimated nine in 10 people globally breathe polluted, toxic air, and consequences are not nice.

Ghebreyesus states that exposure to air pollution during pregnancy can damage a developing baby’s vital organs. Also, it negatively affects brain development during childhood, lowering children’s chances of success in school (it causes a reduction in intelligence). Furthermore, WHO’s estimates show that air pollution is responsible for one-quarter to one-third of deaths from heart attack, stroke, lung cancer, and chronic respiratory disease.

Since, in the end, we all breathe the same air, no person, group, city, country or region can solve the problem alone. Through global commitments such as the Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement and the Urban Agenda 2030, the WHO is building alliances with partners working in energy, climate, and environment. Different players in transport, urban planning, housing, energy, and environment were given the tools, resources and support to evaluate the health impacts of their policy decisions.

“Despite the overwhelming evidence, political action is still urgently needed to boost investments and speed up action to reduce air pollution,” Ghebreyesus wrote.

Since sources of pollution as well as solutions are known, WHO believes the time for action is now. At the conference, measures like strengthening standards and legislation on air quality, improving assessment of pollution effects, enhancing global leadership and advocacy, ensuring access to clean energy, increasing investments in low-emissions technologies as well as research, monitoring and evaluation were presented. Hopefully, citizens will soon have better solutions for affordable and clean urban transport, as well as waste and household energy strategies.

WHO is inviting countries, urban mayors and civil society to make commitments to the global campaign Breath Life 2030 for clean air, to reduce climate emissions and meet WHO’s Air Quality Guidelines.

At the first Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health, Christiana Figueres spoke about the air pollution:

Learn more about how air pollution impacts your body in the video below:

By Andreja Gregoric, MSc