A new report commissioned by the Federal Office for the Environment (BAFU), researchers from the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute (Swiss TPH) have revealed that Switzerland could save more than 2,200 lives annually by following the air quality guidelines set by the World Health Organization (WHO). The report, released recently, highlights the substantial health and economic benefits of cleaner air.

The WHO guidelines, designed to safeguard public health, are currently not fully met in Switzerland. The study indicates that if the country were to align its air quality standards with WHO recommendations, a significant impact on public health would be achieved. Over 2,200 deaths could be averted each year, along with the prevention of approximately 9,000 cases of chronic lung disease, 5,000 cases of dementia, and 1,100 cases of asthma in adults.

The economic ramifications are equally noteworthy. The report suggests that achieving air quality in line with WHO standards could reduce the loss of income in Switzerland caused by fine dust by almost 750,000 hours annually. This underscores the importance of addressing air pollution not only as a health concern but also as an economic imperative.

According to the Swiss TPH report, the estimated health benefits are not only significant in terms of lives saved and diseases prevented but also translate into substantial cost savings. In 2020, the external costs of air pollutants amounted to 3.5 billion Swiss francs, borne by the general public. Martin Röösli from Swiss TPH emphasizes the need to invest in measures to combat air pollutants instead of tolerating such extensive suffering.

The report identifies combustion processes, particularly wood burning in households and industries, as a major contributor to fine dust. Motorized traffic, including tire wear from combustion engines, and diesel engines, in particular, are highlighted as significant sources of nitrogen oxides. Agriculture and industry also play roles in emitting ammonia, fine dust, volatile hydrocarbons, and nitrogen oxides.

While Switzerland has made strides in air pollution control, especially concerning ozone, there is still room for improvement. Current air quality regulations in the country align with WHO’s older guidelines from 2005, and they are generally not met. The Swiss air is marginally cleaner than the outdated WHO specifications, but it falls short of the new, stricter standards introduced by the WHO in 2021.

The WHO tightened its recommendations in 2021 based on new scientific evidence highlighting the health damage caused by poor air quality. The limits for fine dust (PM2.5), nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide have been significantly reduced. Viola Mauri from the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) notes that while Swiss air quality meets WHO guidelines for some pollutants, PM2.5 pollution and nitrogen dioxide levels exceed WHO recommendations in specific regions.

Efforts to improve air quality are underway, as the Federal Commission for Air Hygiene (EKL) recommended adopting the new WHO guidelines in the Air Quality Regulation. This move would ensure that emission limit values align with the protection required by the Environmental Protection Act. The Swiss TPH report is expected to bolster this recommendation, but Viola Mauri indicates that the legislative changes will take a few years to materialize.

In conclusion, Switzerland stands at a crossroads where prioritizing air quality could not only save lives and prevent diseases but also contribute to significant economic savings. As the nation navigates the path toward cleaner air, the impact on public health and the economy remains a compelling motivation for swift and effective measures against air pollution.