Exploring the WHO Air Quality Guidelines

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Air pollution is an increasing global health concern. To help businesses and governments monitor pollution, WHO developed strict guidelines to quantify acceptable pollution levels. Staying within the boundaries of these levels requires an air monitoring system, an essential for maintaining long-term respiratory health. Air-pollution-(1)-2.0

Exposure to air pollution can be deadly. But how common is it? 

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that approximately 7 million premature deaths from air pollution occur annually. This staggering death toll results from unchecked indoor and outdoor air pollution from manmade and natural causes.

There’s no roundabout way of saying it: Air pollution exposure is an enormous problem. As a result, the responsibility of monitoring air pollution levels falls on the shoulders of building managers and property owners. But many don’t know how to begin testing for pollution. 

The WHO air quality guidelines are a great place to start understanding how to address air pollution in your building. Below, we’ll break down these guidelines. We’ll also explain how air pollution causes adverse health effects and how the trend of implementing an indoor air quality monitoring system is vital for maintaining a safe, breathable environment.

Air Pollution and Its Effects on Human Health

The effects of air pollution are well documented, but how do these effects take place? Air is a gas, and pollutants are any airborne particles harmful to humans or the environment. Pollutants come in many forms and can be solids, liquids, or gases that infiltrate the air and, eventually, the body.  

Pollutants develop from many sources, but some of the main ones include: 

  • Energy Use
  • Energy Production
  • Smoke and Emission from Fires or Engines
  • Plantborn Mold and Allergens

These pollutants result in smog, soot, greenhouse gases, and pollen, which damage public health and exacerbate the climate change crisis. It's a widespread issue that affects every corner of the globe. For example, in the U.S., it’s estimated that four out of every ten residents live in a county with unhealthy air. And staying inside won't help, as estimates show that 30% of commercial buildings have unfit air quality. 

The results of these high levels of air pollution prove to be catastrophic. Continued inhalation of such pollutants causes significant long-term health effects, especially in buildings without an effective indoor air quality monitoring device. For some, the result is inflation in the throat, lungs, or allergies. But for others, the result is a fatal respiratory disease. 

Pollutants enter through the lungs. From there, damages depend on the particle's size. Larger pollutants get trapped in the lungs, causing tiny cuts after inhalation. If the pollutant is small or soluble enough, it can even enter the bloodstream, where it begins to damage major organs. 

As more scientific evidence comes forth, it’s clear that poor air quality is responsible for many lung diseases, including:

  • Cancer
  • Emphysema, 
  • Asthma, 
  • Bronchitis
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Development of the WHO Air Quality Guidelines

In 1987, WHO released its first air quality guidelines. Since 1987, they’ve updated the guidelines multiple times—the last large-scale update was released in 2021. WHO's guidelines aren't legally binding, but they are immensely important for businesses, engineers, and governments to adhere to as they undergo monitoring air quality and combat the impacts of air pollution. 

The WHO guidelines outline for major pollutants that harm humans: 

  • Particulate Matter (PM): Solids or liquid particles suspended in the air
  • Ozone (O3): Chemical gas caused by the interaction of sunlight, nitrogen oxide, and volatile organic compounds
  • Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2): A chemical compound byproduct from fuel combustion of fossil fuels and natural gas
  • Sulfur Dioxide (SO2): A chemical compound byproduct of fossil fuel combustion and other industrial processing, like smelting

Ultimately, WHO understands there's no way to eliminate air pollutants altogether. But through continuous scientific testing, WHO developed evolving guidelines that explain acceptable levels of pollutants. Following these guidelines, you significantly decrease the likelihood of long-term health effects. 

Guidelines for Specific Air Pollutants

Guidelines for Specific Air Pollutants - Attune

WHO analyzes air pollutants and then provides guidelines relaying the acceptable number of micrograms of pollution per cubic meter of air. Each has an acceptable mean for long-term and short-term exposure. 

PM2.5 and PM10

Remember when we said smaller particulates could enter the bloodstream through the lungs? The danger of smaller particulate matter is so great, that WHO developed two sets of guidelines for PM: One set measures smaller PM, meaning it has a diameter equal to or less than five micrometers; the other measures PM with a diameter equal to or less than 10 micrometers. 

  • PM2.5 (Annual): 5μg/m3
  • PM2.5  (24-hour): 15μg/m3    
  • PM10 (Annual): 15μg/m3
  • PM10(24-hour): 45μg/m3

Ozone (O3)

Ozone is the polluting component of smog. If inhaled for too long, it can cause irritation, asthma, and emphysema. Rather than calculate ozone by an annual and 24-hour mean, WHO's guidelines measure the “peak season”  for ozone presence. The peak season is the six months when ozone levels are highest. Because of this adjustment, the short-term mean is a calculation for an 8-hour period, not 24 hours. 

  • O3 (Peak-Season): 60μg/m3  
  • O3 (8-hour): 100μg/m3  

Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2)

Nitrogen dioxide comes from the combustion of fossil fuels, such as power plants, kerosene heaters, unventilated gas stoves, and tobacco smoke. When inhaled, it can irritate the lungs and cause dizziness and headaches. But when large quantities are inhaled, it can lead to even more severe issues like infertility or death.

  • NO2 (Annual): 10μg/m3  
  • NO2 (24-hour): 25μg/m3  

Sulfur Dioxide (SO2)

Industrial projects like smelting minerals or burning coal are the largest causes of sulfur dioxide. The effects of sulfur dioxide are burning off the nose, throat, and lungs. But if inhaled over a long time, it can cause lasting respiratory damage. 

  • SO2 (24-hour): 40μg/m

How Attune Can Support Air Quality Improvements

Clean air is a fundamental matter of public health. As such, businesses and governments must do all they can to analyze and constantly deliver clean air to building occupants. Solutions like air quality monitoring devices aren’t just tools. These air quality monitoring services are critical for preserving the health of employees and tenants. They are incredibly effective, which is why many companies turn to indoor air quality services to transform their approach to indoor air. 

Attune’s indoor air quality monitoring equipment provides building managers with a complete package of cutting-edge technology, allowing them to track pollution levels in real time. It’s a fully customizable system of indoor air monitoring sensors. These sensors track and measure particulate matter, ozone, carbon monoxide, radon, sulfur, and more. Then, the data funnel into an easy-to-read software where building managers can use the dashboard to monitor current levels down to the second.

Don’t wait. Visit our product page to see how Attune can provide you with a revolutionary new system that provides incalculable health benefits.


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