Air pollution causes ‘one in eight deaths’ says UN

NEWS: Air pollution killed 7 million people in 2012, say WHO, making it world’s biggest environmental health threat

Source: Flickr/Nicolò Lazzati

Source: Flickr/Nicolò Lazzati

By Sophie Yeo

Air pollution killed seven million people in 2012, confirming that it is now the world’s largest environmental health risk.

The figures, released today by the World Health Organisation, are more than double previous estimates. It means that in 2012, air pollution was responsible for one in eight total global deaths.

“The risks from air pollution are now far greater than previously thought or understood, particularly for heart disease and strokes,” says Dr Maria Neira, Director of the Department for Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health at the WHO.

“Few risks have a greater impact on global health today than air pollution; the evidence signals the need for concerted action to clean up the air we all breathe.”

Along with strokes and heart disease, respiratory infections and lung cancer are also killing people as a result of air pollution.

Indoor, outdoor

Air pollution can occur both inside and outside. About 2.9 billion people live in home where wood, coal or biomass is used as the primary cooking fuel. This produces tiny soot particles that get into the lungs, particularly in poorly ventilated houses.

The WHO estimates that this was linked to 4.3 million deaths in 2012, with woman and young children particularly badly affected because they spend more time around the stove.

“Poor women and children pay a heavy price from indoor air pollution since they spend more time at home breathing in smoke and soot from leaky coal and wood cook stoves,” says Dr Flavia Bustreo, who deals with family, women’s and children’s health at the WHO.

Outside, air pollution is caused mainly by burning coal and by transport. The WHO estimates that this caused 3.7 million deaths in 2012. Many people are exposed to both indoor and outdoor air pollution.

The worst affected areas are low- and middle-income countries in South East Asia and the Western Pacific, according to the WHO, where a total of 3.3 million deaths were linked to indoor air pollution, and a further 2.6 million related to outdoor air pollution.

Policies to combat air pollution could be good for the economy as well as the inhabitants of any given region, says Dr Carlos Dora, Coordinator for Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health at the WHO.

“In most cases, healthier strategies will also be more economical in the long term due to health-care cost savings as well as climate gains,” he said.

“WHO and health sectors have a unique role in translating scientific evidence on air pollution into policies that can deliver impact and improvements that will save lives.”

Beijing, Paris

Air pollution made the headlines last week when the City of Lights was momentarily snuffed out by a blanket of smog.

Paris’s air quality index took readings of 185 – a level which is considered dangerous to human health. This prompted a driving ban on around half of the city’s vehicles, as well as an outpouring of photographs of the Eiffel Tower disappearing behind a wall of haze.

In Beijing, air pollution is a longer term and more consistent burden on the city, with the air quality index regularly taking readings of over 300, at which the air is considered “hazardous”.

At 3pm yesterday, authorities in Beijing issued a ‘yellow’ warning, which indicates severe pollution for one day or heavy pollution for three consecutive days.

In February, the city issued an ‘orange’ warning for the first time since the four-tiered system was put in place last year, as part of ongoing efforts to reduce Beijing’s notorious smog.

On Friday, China’s Premier Li Keqiang said that the government will control the country’s total energy consumption, promote energy efficiency and encourage the development of clean energy industries in order to tackle climate change.

As well as causing air quality to deteriorate, burning coal emits carbon dioxide, which is causing the planet to warm.

“In terms of energy supply, coal power will not be the only solution for us,” Li said, according to state media, at a meeting of China’s cabinet.

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