Outdoor air pollution kills 3.3 million yearly, could double to 6.6 million by 2050

CC BY 2.0 Joel Sow

Spoiler: Deadly air pollution is deadly.

If there's one indisputable negative effect on the planet of our massive fossil fuel energy appetite over the last century, and one that has an immediate and ongoing impact on us, it's air pollution.

The other major negative effect of our combustion-happy civilization, climate change, has a vocal minority opposition camp (who I guess we're now calling “climate change doubters”), but when I did a quick search for air pollution skeptics and air pollution deniers, I came up with only a small handful of links to actual "air pollution doubters" (my words), most of which centered around the argument of whether or not excess CO2 should be considered a pollutant (ya know, 'cause it makes plants grow and all that). So I guess you could say climate change is disputed, even if it's only by a few.

But air pollution is directly linked to shorter life spans and premature deaths, among a host of other health impacts, right now, not in the future as the dangers of climate change threaten to bring us, and is considered to be "the greatest environmental disaster in the world today."

We've been covering air pollution stories for years here on TreeHugger, so it should be no surprise that yet another study has confirmed that air pollution remains a deadly and reliable killer which could get twice as deadly if we don't curb our "business-as-usual" emissions levels. The new research, just published in the journal Nature, concluded that some 3.3 million people per year die prematurely from outdoor air pollution, predominantly through exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5, with a diameter smaller than 2.5 micrometers), with the majority located in Asia.

"We find that emissions from residential energy use such as heating and cooking, prevalent in India and China, have the largest impact on premature mortality globally, being even more dominant if carbonaceous particles are assumed to be most toxic."

China's air pollution disaster is almost a force of its own, as Mike recently reported that the death toll from air pollution each year in that country is 4000 per day, which works out to something like 1.46 million people each year, and the air in Delhi, India, is said to be "now more toxic than any other city’s on earth," contributing to that nation's 645,000 annual premature deaths.

The sources of air pollution differs by region, and interestingly, the study pointed out that in "much of the USA" as well as in a few other countries, emissions from power generation and traffic contributed significantly to those regions' air pollution, but in other areas, such as the eastern United States, Europe, East Asia, and Russia, "agricultural emissions make the largest relative contribution to PM2.5."

According to the Guardian, lead researcher Professor Jos Lelieveld, of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, stated that agricultural emissions of ammonia had a "remarkable" impact on human health, and that a full fifth of all global deaths from outdoor air pollution were attributable to ammonia emissions, mostly from cattle, chickens, pigs, and excess fertilizer.

"The ammonia reacts with fumes from traffic and industry to produce tiny particles and is the largest cause of air pollution deaths in the eastern US, Japan and in Europe. “For London, agriculture is the main source,” said Lelieveld. Across the UK, 48% of the premature deaths were ultimately the result of agricultural pollution."

The causes of the premature deaths from outdoor air pollution are primarily strokes and heart attacks, accounting for 3/4 of the total, with respiratory diseases and lung cancer claiming the rest.

And the future looks pretty smoggy, as well, and the authors concluded with a projected estimate of what we might expect in the next couple of decades:

"Model projections based on a business-as-usual emission scenario indicate that the contribution of outdoor air pollution to premature mortality could double by 2050."

As staggering as the figure of 3.3 million premature deaths annually is, that's not even the full story on air pollution, as this study only accounted for outdoor air pollution, not indoor air pollution, which is even more deadly, being implicated in some 4.3 million deaths per year.

Maybe we just need thousands millions of Smog Free Towers?

Tags: Air Pollution | Health


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