Air pollution is the fourth leading cause of death, according to a new study. Globally, approximately 5.5 million people die per year and the number will continue to climb unless stronger tactics to reduce pollution are implemented.
“Air pollution is the fourth highest risk factor for death globally and by far the leading environmental risk factor for disease,” said Michael Brauer, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health in Vancouver, Canada
The study, presented at an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) 2016 conference, revealed some diseases related to air pollution kill more people than alcohol, drug abuse and unsafe sex.
Using data compiled over a 23 year period from 188 countries, the University of British Columbia and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington compared health risk factors to air pollution levels. The researchers found that air pollution levels actually decreased from 1990 to 2013, but due to population growth and urbanization, the risk of exposure to dangerous emissions has increased.
Of the 5.5 million deaths worldwide, more than half occurred in two of the most populated countries, India and China. In 2013, 1.4 million air pollution-related deaths occurred in India, while 1.6 million died in China. Outdoor air pollution related to the burning of coal killed about 366,000 people in China alone.
Qiao Ma, a PhD student at the School of Environment at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China projects between 990,000 and 1.3 million deaths will occur in 2030 unless more aggressive air pollution reduction targets are met.
In an effort to improve air quality, China has enacted new emission standards for vehicles as well as other initiatives committed to a reduction of coal burning. However, China’s levels of pollution are still 10 times higher than the healthy standards set by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The pollution in China is so bad that the government was forced to issue an environmental alert in December after weather forecasters predicted 72 hours of stagnant air. As previously reported by the Inquisitr, Chinese officials ordered the closure of schools and banned more than half of all registered vehicles from the road.
The recent study not only looked at outdoor air pollution, but also the adverse health effects caused by indoor pollution as well. Breathing in smoke from indoor fires significantly increases the risk of many lung and cardiovascular diseases.
In India, millions of families are exposed to poor air quality right in their own homes. The tradition of burning wood, dung, and other sources for heating and cooking puts the poorest in the developing country at a much higher risk of death from indoor air pollution.
Health Effects Institute President Dan Greenbaum says indoor pollution affects both China and India, but more so in India. Many mothers and children breathe an excessive amount of polluted air while burning “biomass fuels” as a heat source for cooking, as clean fuels like propane and natural gas are mostly inaccessible.
WHO says people should never be exposed to more than 25 micrograms per cubic meter of daily particulate matter. These small particles are released into the atmosphere by various sources such as power plants, industrial manufacturing, car exhaust, and burning coal and wood.
Yet, residents in Beijing and New Delhi breathe in at least 300 micrograms per cubic meter, or 1,200 percent higher than WHO guidelines, on a daily basis. Current estimates put 85 percent of the world’s population in areas that exceed the particulate matter levels recommended by the WHO Air Quality Guideline.
The study suggested that the deaths from air pollution will continue over the next 20 years unless worldwide carbon emissions are lowered. “Reducing air pollution is an incredibly efficient way to improve the health of a population,” said Brauer.
While air pollution ranks fourth highest risk of death, it is still behind high blood pressure, poor diet, and smoking. Roughly 80,000 Americans prematurely died in 2013 from exposure to dirty air, making it the 13th greatest risk of death in the U.S.
[Photo by ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images]