Global air pollution causes millions of early deaths every year in what researchers are calling an “air pollution pandemic”. On average, people may expect to see a shortened lifespan of about three years, making man-made pollution more deadly than wars, smoking, and other potentially fatal diseases.
Last year marked the first time in a decade that pollution was found to increase in the US despite evidence that cutting pollution saves lives. A growing body of evidence suggests that pollution is not only responsible for an increased risk of death, but also linked to brain atrophy, cancer, and memory loss as well as mental health conditions like depression and suicide. Particulate matter has been found in the placenta of pregnant women and is believed to increase the risk of “silent” miscarriage. It’s even connected to balding.
In 2015 alone, air pollution caused an extra 8.8 million premature deaths, write researchers with the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and the University Medical Centre Mainz in Cardiovascular Research. By comparison, smoking shortens life expectancy by an average of 2.2 years, killing around 7.2 million people each year. HIV/AIDS is responsible for around 1 million deaths, while parasitic and vector-borne diseases like malaria result in around 600,000 deaths. All forms of violence and wars kill even less – 530,000 people.
“We show that about two-thirds of premature deaths are attributable to human-made air pollution, mainly from fossil fuel use; this goes up to 80 percent in high-income countries. Five and a half million deaths worldwide a year are potentially avoidable,” said Thomas Münzel in a statement. If air pollution was reduced by removing fossil fuel emissions, the researchers add that improved air quality could add up to 1 year of life in just over a year. If all human-made emissions were removed, people could see nearly two additional years.
To determine how air pollution impacts six types of respiratory and blood-related diseases, the team used exposure data from various sources of air pollution and applied it to previous work analyzing global exposure and death rates and to data from the Global Burden of Disease. Human-made air pollution was distinguished from naturally sourced pollutants such as wildfire emissions.
Cardiovascular diseases like heart and cerebrovascular disease combined were the most likely to shorten lives, resulting in a 43 percent loss in life expectancy around the world. Air pollution was also shown to disproportionately impact children under the age of five in low-income countries, as well as older people – three-quarters of deaths attributed to air pollution occurred in people over 60.
"It is remarkable that both the number of deaths and the loss in life expectancy from air pollution rival the effect of tobacco smoking and are much higher than other causes of death. Air pollution exceeds malaria as a global cause of premature death by a factor of 19; it exceeds violence by a factor of 16, HIV/AIDS by a factor of 9, alcohol by a factor of 45, and drug abuse by a factor of 60,” said study author Jos Lelieveld.
The researchers say that it is the first study to determine how air pollution impacts specific deaths at various ages and across regions.
“We believe our results show there is an 'air pollution pandemic'. Policy-makers and the medical community should be paying much more attention to this. Both air pollution and smoking are preventable, but over the past decades much less attention has been paid to air pollution than to smoking, especially among cardiologists,” said Münzel, adding that air pollution measures should be included in national guidelines just like other preventable diseases.