MANILA -- About one-third, or 2.2 million of the world’s 7 million premature deaths each year from household or indoor, and ambient or outdoor air pollution are in the Western Pacific region, said the World Health Organization (WHO).

These new estimates show that nine out of 10 people in the world breathe air containing high levels of pollutants, the WHO said in a news release issued Wednesday.

Of the 2.2 million air pollution-related deaths in the region in 2016, 29 percent were due to heart disease, 27 percent stroke, 22 percent chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, 14 percent lung cancer, and 8 percent pneumonia.

“Air pollution is the most lethal environmental health threat in our region, and it affects people in middle-income countries at a much higher rate than those in high-income countries,” said Dr. Shin Young-soo, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific.

“Addressing air pollution and climate change are top priorities for WHO in the Western Pacific Region, but they are not challenges that individuals or the health sector alone can solve. We need urgent action across energy, agriculture, transport, housing and beyond to ensure a healthy and sustainable future,” Shin said.

According to WHO, ambient air pollution is mainly made up of fine particulate matter that includes such pollutants as sulfate, nitrates and black carbon, which pose the greatest risks to human health.

It affects urban and rural areas and mostly comes from the inefficient energy use in households, industry, the agriculture and transport sectors, and coal-fired power plants. In some areas, ambient air pollution comes from sand and desert dust, waste burning, and deforestation.

Air quality can also be influenced by natural elements, such as geographical, meteorological, and seasonal factors.

On the other hand, household air pollution comes from the use of kerosene and solid fuels, such as wood in polluting stoves, open fires and lamps.

More than 40 percent of the world’s population still does not have access to clean cooking fuels and technologies in their homes. Women and children are most at risk of household air pollution.

“Air pollution threatens us all, but the poorest and most marginalized people bear the brunt of the burden,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director General.

He warned that if urgent action on air pollution is not taken, “we will never come close to achieving sustainable development.”

The WHO however noted that while the latest data show ambient air pollution levels are still dangerously high in the Western Pacific, they also show some progress, with deaths from air pollution decreasing from 2.8 million in 2012 to 2.2 million in 2016.

The organization nonetheless called on countries to reduce annual mean values of air pollution to 20 μg/m3 for PM10 and 10 μg/m3 for PM2.5.

According to the WHO, countries are taking measures to reduce air pollution from particulate matter, citing that the annual median exposure to ambient PM2.5 in China was 48.8 μg/m3 in 2016, marking a 17 percent reduction from the estimate for 2012, but still almost five times higher than WHO recommendations.

“Many of the world’s megacities exceed WHO’s guideline levels for air quality by more than five times, representing a major risk to people’s health,” said Dr. Maria Neira, Director of WHO’s Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health.

“The good news is that we are seeing more and more governments increasing commitments to monitor and reduce air pollution, as well as more global action from the health sector and other sectors like transport, housing and energy,” Neira added.

The WHO said air pollution does not recognize borders, calling on governments to sustain and coordinate their efforts to improve air quality at all levels.

Countries need to work together on solutions, it said.

Later this year, the WHO will convene the first Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health, bringing together governments and partners in a global effort to improve air quality and combat climate change. (WHO PR)