5.5 Million People Die Prematurely Each Year Simply From Breathing

February 18, 2016 | Joanne Kennell

Activists gather to demand clean air as Edinburgh Air Pollution Zone to be expanded
Photo credit: Friends of the Earth Scotland/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

More than half of those deaths occur in two of the world’s fastest growing economies.

Disturbing news out of the University of British Columbia, Canada.  According to new research, more than 5.5 million people die prematurely every year due to household and outdoor air pollution, and more than half of those deaths occur in two of the world’s fastest growing economies: China and India.

The new research, presented on February 12 at the 2016 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), found that even with efforts to limit future emissions — from power plants, industrial manufacturing, vehicle exhaust, and burning coal and wood — the number of premature deaths linked to air pollution will continue to climb over the next 20 years unless more aggressive targets are set.

These emissions release small particles into the air that cause adverse human health effects including stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and chronic and acute respiratory diseases.

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“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 in a press release.  “Reducing air pollution is an incredibly efficient way to improve the health of a population.”

Researchers from Canada, the US, China and India gathered estimates of air pollution levels in China and India to calculate the impact on health.  Their data analysis showed that the two countries accounted for 55 percent of the deaths worldwide — 1.6 million people died from air pollution in China and 1.4 million people died in India in 2013.

Burning coal is the biggest contributor to poor air quality in China, and Qiao Ma, a PhD student at the School of Environment of Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, estimated that air pollution will cause between 990,000 and 1.3 million premature deaths in 2030 unless better emission targets are introduced.

In India, the major cause of poor air quality is the burning of wood, dung and similar sources of biomass for cooking and heating.  Millions of families are exposed daily to high levels of the small particles released during this form of burning in their own homes.

SEE ALSO: Volkswagen’s Illegal Emissions Linked to 60 Premature Deaths

Fortunately, in the last 50 years, North America, Western Europe and Japan have all made steps towards reducing pollution by using cleaner fuels and producing more efficient vehicles, as well as limiting coal burning and placing emission restrictions on power plants and industrial factories.

“Having been in charge of designing and implementing strategies to improve air in the United States, I know how difficult it is. Developing countries have a tremendous task in front of them,” said Dan Greenbaum, president of Health Effects Institute, a non-profit organization based in Boston.  “This research helps guide the way by identifying the actions which can best improve public health.”

However, reducing these emissions has been done before by developed countries and it can be done again — it will just take a lot of hard work, dedication and strict emission targets.  But if it saves even one life from a premature death, it is completely worth it!


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