Air pollution killing almost nine million a year

Deaths linked to fossil fuels much more than previously thought. Andrew Masterson reports.

The German city of Stuttgart has introduced an alarm system to indicate the amount of fine particulate matter in the air and urge people to use public transport instead of private vehicles.

Sebastian Gollnow/picture alliance via Getty Images

Air pollution is killing about 8.8 million people a year – almost twice the previous estimate – and is now a bigger killer than tobacco smoking.

That’s the disturbing finding arising from research conducted by researchers led by Jos Lelieveld of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and published in the European Heart Journal.

To make their findings, the researchers reassessed modelling for mortality in Europe during 2015 and discovered that deaths due to ambient air pollution – generated by fuel and biomass consumption, industry and agriculture – had been significantly underestimated.

Air pollution is defined as fine particulate matter in the atmosphere, which at chronic levels of exposure is known to impair vascular function, which is linked to cardiac disease, heart failure, hypertension and stroke.

Looking at the figures for Europe Lelieveld concluded that air pollution during the year in question had caused about 790,000 deaths, with 659,000 of them falling within the 28 member states of the European Union.

Extrapolating to the rest of the world, the researchers arrived at an annual global death toll of 8.8 million – well up in the most recent previous estimate of 4.5 million.

“To put this into perspective,” says co-author Thomas Münzel, “this means that air pollution causes more extra deaths a year than tobacco smoking, which the World Health Organization estimates was responsible for an extra 7.2 million deaths in 2015.

“Smoking is avoidable but air pollution is not. The number of deaths from cardiovascular disease that can be attributed to air pollution is much higher than expected.”

The researchers estimated that each of the pollution-linked deaths represented a decrease in life expectancy of about two years. Worldwide, air pollution caused 120 extra deaths per 100,000 people.

The researchers add that many, even most, of the deaths caused by pollution could be avoided by reducing the amount of particulate matter in the atmosphere. The best way to achieve this, they point out, is obvious.

“Since most of the particulate matter and other air pollutants in Europe come from the burning of fossil fuels, we need to switch to other sources for generating energy urgently,” says Lelieveld.

“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 in Europe by up to 55%.”

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