Silent killer: Visualizing air pollution

As global leaders repeatedly fail to reach agreements on setting emissions targets to slow the rate of global warming, local communities are taking action to protect themselves from a leading driver of climate change: the burning of fossil fuels.

According to an LA Times article,  frustrated citizens in China frequently gather to protest smog and other types of environmental pollution, but these gatherings are quickly squashed by the government.  However, there are signs that the government is responding to citizens’ anger, such as pledging $275 billion to curb air pollution until 2017 and permitting 300 state-approved NGOs to sue polluters.

In South Africa, a recent IRIN article describes how communities in the Mpumalanga Province are fighting for cleaner air in collaboration with Greenpeace and local environmental organizations. Mpumalanga Province is home to 12 coal-burning power plants.

The public power provider, Eskom, is asking the government to postpone its compliance with new government emission standards until 2024. Eskom is also building two additional power stations in the province, one of which will be the biggest coal-burning power plant in the world.

Environmental groups and Greenpeace are pressuring the South African government to make sure Eskom complies with the new emission standards. Greenpeace recently released a report entitled “Health impacts and social costs of Eskom’s proposed non-compliance with South Africa’s air emission standards.

The IRIN article profiles the respiratory illnesses experienced by some of the residents of Masakhane, a settlement near the smokestacks. One resident recounts how she and other family members started suffering from debilitating asthma after moving to the community. Ambient air pollution can cause lower respiratory infections; trachea, bronchus, and lung cancers; ischemic heart disease; stroke; and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which includes emphysema.

According to the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study published in 2012, an estimated 3,207 people died from ambient air pollution in South Africa in 2010, up from 2,436 in 1990. The screen grab below shows the total number of years of healthy life lost – also known as early death and suffering – from ambient air pollution between 1990 and 2010. Healthy life lost from ambient air pollution increased by 26% during this time period.

Premature death and disability due to ambient air pollution, South Africa, 1990-2010

Air Pollution IHME

In the nation as a whole, ambient air pollution ranks relatively low (17th) as a cause of early death and disability compared to indoor air pollution (11th) caused by burning solid fuels while cooking (see screen grab). At the same time, looking at the scale of health problems caused by ambient air pollution in countries such as China and India provides cautionary tales.

Top 20 causes of premature death and disability from different risk factors and percent change, South Africa, 1990 and 2010

Air Pollution IHME2


In China (see screen grab below), ambient air pollution is the fourth-highest cause of early death and disability and caused approximately 1.2 million deaths in 2010. Rapidly industrializing countries such as India are also struggling to contain growing air pollution problems. In May, the WHO estimated that Delhi had the most polluted atmosphere in the world. According to the GBD study, ambient air pollution killed more than 600,000 people in India in 2010 and was the seventh-leading cause of early death and disability.

Top 20 causes of premature death and disability from different risk factors and percent change, China, 1990 and 2010

Air Pollution IHME3

As countries’ economies grow and demand for electricity increases, air pollution from coal-powered energy and other sources such as vehicles poses an increasing threat to health. In addition to combatting climate change and protecting the planet’s health, government investment in renewable energy sources could also produce more immediate gains by saving lives.

Katie Leach-Kemon, a weekly contributor of global health visual information posts for Humanosphere, is a policy translation specialist from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.


About Author

Katie Leach-Kemon

Katherine (Katie) Leach-Kemon is a policy translation specialist at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). Katie specializes in two of IHME's research areas, the Global Burden of Disease and health financing. Katie has helped produce IHME's Financing Global Health report since it was first published in 2009. She received an MPH from the University of Washington and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger. Her work has been published in The Lancet, Health Affairs, and the Journal of the American Medical Association. You can follow her on Twitter @kleachkemon.