By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA, Sept 22 (Reuters) – The World Health Organization (WHO) on Wednesday issued its first air quality guidelines since 2005, aimed at reducing deaths from pollutants that cause cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

The United Nations agency drastically lowered the recommended maximum levels for several pollutants, including particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide, both of which are found in fossil fuel emissions.

“Air pollution is one of the biggest environmental threats to human health, along with climate change,” he noted.

The WHO cited “clear evidence” of the damage inflicted by air pollution to human health “at even lower concentrations than previously believed.”

“The WHO has adjusted almost all levels of the air quality guidelines downward, warning that exceeding the new levels of the guidelines is associated with significant health risks.”

Long-term exposure to even lower concentrations of ambient and household air pollution can cause lung cancer, heart disease and stroke, resulting in approximately 7 million premature deaths each year, according to the WHO.

People living in low- and middle-income countries are the hardest hit due to urbanization and economic development that are heavily dependent on the burning of fossil fuels, he said.

Reducing exposure to particulate matter (PM), capable of penetrating deep into the lungs and entering the bloodstream, is a priority, WHO noted. These are generated mainly by the burning of fuels in sectors such as transport, energy, households, industry and agriculture.

Under the new guidelines, the WHO halved the recommended limit for the average annual level of PM2.5 from 10 micrograms per cubic meter to 5. It also reduced the recommended limit for PM10 from 20 micrograms to 15. (Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay ; additional information from David Stanway in Shanghai. Edited in Spanish by Javier Leira)

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