Global Toll of Air Pollution: Over 3 Million Deaths Each Year

We have long known that many people die from air pollution.  What is surprising is how high the public health toll is and that it is largely preventable. 

A new study in The Lancet, developed by an international group of experts, finds that outdoor air pollution, especially fine particulate matter (soot) contributes to more than 3.2 million premature deaths around the world each year.

That’s a terribly high number – and much more people than previously thought.   The study was able to determine this figure by using rigorous and highly advanced methodology that does a much better job of accounting for all of the air pollution, exposure and impacts.  Earlier studies were limited to data that was available at the time on coarse particles in urban areas only. 

This new, more refined study also finds that:

  • Air pollution ranks among the top ten global health risks associated with mortality and disease. 
  • Most of the premature deaths due to air pollution are in China and other countries in Asia.  In fact, air pollution is the 4th highest risk factor right behind smoking in East Asia. 

But outside of Asia, the risks are still high.  Globally, outdoor air pollution ranks as the 8th highest risk factor for premature death, posing a greater danger than high cholesterol.  

So how can air pollution be so damaging?  It is the very finest soot – so small that it lodges deep within the lungs and from there enters the bloodstream – that contributes to most of the public health toll of air pollution including mortality.  Diesel soot, which is also a carcinogen, is a major problem because it is concentrated in cities along transportation corridors impacting densely populated areas. It is thought to contribute to half the premature deaths from air pollution in urban centers.  For example one in six people in the U.S. live near a diesel pollution hot spot like a rail yard, port terminal or freeway.

Fortunately there are many actions that can be taken to address outdoor air pollution.  The technology is readily available at a fraction of the investment cost compared to the health costs that the public bears.  We can replace polluting old engines with much cleaner new models. Alternative fuels and more efficient equipment can address global warming pollution in addition to traditional air pollutants like soot.  Renewable-based electric power can replace polluting diesels and other fossil fuel engines in virtually every sector.   

NRDC has pioneered using new technology to clean up air pollution from the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, collectively the fifth largest port in the world – technology that can be used in polluted areas elsewhere in the U.S. and in Asia.  The Obama administration has also taken actions to reduce the death toll from PM2.5.  Just today, the Environmental Protection Agency released updated soot standards that will lower our exposure to this dangerous air pollution, save up to 1,000 lives annually and avoid many thousands of asthma attacks, heart attacks, and strokes every year.  You can read the EPA fact sheet on the new rule here, and the fact sheet on the health effects of PM 2.5 here

Additionally, the recent Mercury and Air Toxics (MATS) rule is projected to save up to 11,000 lives annually.  The Emissions Control Area, requiring big ocean-going ships to use cleaner fuel within 200 miles of the U.S. coastline, is expected to save up to 31,000 lives annually.  The Tier III automobile standards that NRDC is urging EPA to adopt will also save many lives

Although much work remains to be done, we have made and are making progress to reduce the number of deaths caused by air pollution.  And the advances made by the U.S. will translate into reducing the global burden of disease

Now we have over three million more reasons to invest in clean air.

For more about this study and the results see the Health Effects Institute.

About the Authors

David Pettit

Senior Attorney, Southern California Air program

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