Every year, three million people around the world die due to outdoor pollution. If this fact is not scary enough, here’s another. According to the latest air quality report from the World Health Organisation, which covers 3,000 cities in 103 countries, more than 80 per cent of people living in urban areas that monitor air pollution are breathing air laden with pollutants way beyond the Who limits. And this reality is more disturbing than it sounds. The key words here are ‘areas that monitor air pollution’. There are several countries around the globe that have random monitoring systems or none at all, leading to the alarming prospect that had there been more effective measuring systems in place, we probably could be looking at an even grimmer scenario.

According to the Who report, levels of ultra-fine particles of less than 2.5 microns (less than a fraction of the width of a human hair — known as PM2.5) are found in more cities in India than elsewhere and among other countries that contribute to the world’s worst 30 cities are China with five cities, and Pakistan and Iran, with one city each. The more fine and invisible to the eye the particles that pollute air, the worse it is for us to breathe them in.

Just as we are the food we eat and the thoughts we think, so also are we the air we breathe. Many studies have unequivocally established that breathing poor quality air can reduce an individual’s life span by almost one third.

While developed countries are comparatively more successful in attending to this environmental concern, the brunt is borne by populations of fast-developing and economically strapped countries who fail to create synergy between infrastructure, policies and governance.

While many governments are finally waking up to the issue of air pollution, the fact is that unless the causative factors for air pollution are addressed — population explosions that create a demand for unchecked expansion of domains such as construction, industry, transport, fossil fuel dependence, to name the worst offenders — development will continue to be at the cost of quality of life.

But there is hope. Who’s report also said that more than 50 per cent of the cities in economically strong countries and more than 33 per cent cities in low- and middle-income countries reduced their air pollution levels by more than 5 per cent in the last five years.

This trend needs to persist if the world wants to breathe easy.