Air Pollution Is Killing Twice as Many People as Previously Thought

London sky

Burning fossil fuels puts out a lot more than just CO2.

Natural ventilation is all the rage among architects these days; London's new Bloomberg headquarters has it. But you really have to wonder whether anyone would want to open a window in that city, knowing that the air quality is so bad, and now learning how bad breathing polluted air actually is.

It's all about the tiny particulates smaller than 2.5 microns (PM2.5). Data about them were hidden in a haze of tobacco smoke for years, but their significance is now being recognized: they don't just get caught in the lungs but cross into the bloodstream. Damian Carrington writes in the Guardian:

New research, published in the European Heart Journal, indicates that while air pollution hits the lungs first, its impact via the bloodstream on heart disease and strokes is responsible for twice as many deaths as respiratory diseases.
Prof Jos Lelieveld of the Max-Plank Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, and also part of the team, said: “Since most air pollutants come from the burning of fossil fuels, we need to switch to other sources of energy urgently. When we use clean, renewable energy, we are not just fulfilling the Paris agreement to mitigate the effects of climate change, we could also reduce air pollution-related death rates by up to 55%.”

Heart disease is disabling, as well as fatal.

Penny Woods, the chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, said: “Toxic air doesn’t just cut lives short. It also seriously affects the health and quality of life of millions of people.”
distribution of excess mortality

© Regional distribution of estimated annual excess mortality rates from cardiovascular diseases /Jos Lelieveld et al

These data are from Europe, where there are a lot more diesel-powered cars and a lot of people get supplementary heat from burning wood or pellets. But the main message applies everywhere: Particulate pollution causes heart disease and shortens lives. Dirty diesel trucks, wood-burning stoves, and burning garbage are all killing us. The authors of the study conclude:

Our results indicate a much higher disease burden than previously assumed....Furthermore, there is still little mention of air pollution as a risk factor in the European and American guidelines on health care and disease prevention.

It is time to take this seriously, to clean up our trucks and cars, and yes, to say goodbye to wood-fired pizza and bagels. Particulate pollution is worse than smoking.