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"When it comes to air quality, you have to work together worldwide"

(Credit: Fotolia)

Annette Peters of Helmholtz Munich was involved as an expert in the guidelines with which the World Health Organization (WHO) aims to limit air pollutants. An interview about global connections, health, and the easterly wind.


Annette Peters, director of the Institute of Epidemiology at Helmholtz Munich. (Credit: Christian Kielmann)

Ms. Peters, when you first picked up the WHO paper, was there anything that surprised you?

There was a positive surprise, because more recent studies were taken very seriously and the guideline values were derived from them. Very low concentrations of particulate matter were set, and the limit for nitrogen dioxide has also been significantly reduced from 40 micrograms per cubic meter to just 10 micrograms. A second positive aspect is that the values for peak concentrations have also been reduced; previously the guideline values for peak periods were set independently of the annual average values.

When it comes to global warming, critics repeatedly object that our European measures are of little help if nothing is done on other continents. What about air quality? If we reduce emissions, will that help on a small scale?

Here, both are true. Of course, local pollutant emissions play a role. But at the same time, particles are also transported over thousands of kilometers. In Europe, we are fortunate that we get most of our air from the west, and that's where the Atlantic lies first. But with easterly winds, we always notice that pollutants are transported to us from completely different regions. On hot summer days, for example, you can see how far the winds carry Saharan dust to our latitudes. This shows: When it comes to air quality, too, we have to think globally and work together.

How do you rate the One Health concept in this context?

The impact of the environment on people is manifold, nitrogen oxides, for example, penetrate deep into the lungs and can trigger irritation there. Large epidemiological studies repeatedly find a link between nitrogen oxide exposure and premature deaths due to cardiovascular diseases. Moreover, people with asthma experience shortness of breath and breathing difficulties when exposed to elevated levels of nitric oxide. The symptoms worsen if the patients are also exposed to allergens at the same time. These are pollen in the spring and dust mites in the winter. It is obvious that allergies in particular have increased in recent years, and therefore these complex environmental interactions will affect more and more people in the future. The One Health concept is a promising approach, because we need to work together on these issues across disciplines to make a difference.

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