The immediate cost of air pollution: millions of lives lost

Air pollution enveloped the campus at Anyang Normal University, Henan Province, China. (Credit: V.T. Polywoda/Flickr)

Focusing solely on long-term carbon emissions reductions ignores the fact that immediate cuts could save lives today. More than 5 million people died from air pollution in 2013 – information we have thanks to major advances in collection of air pollution data using satellites. And many countries that emit the most carbon dioxide stand to gain the most in terms of lives saved if they cut pollution.

Air pollution kills more people than alcohol and drug use (around 3 million deaths in 2013) and unsafe water, sanitation and handwashing (around 1 million deaths in 2013). In terms of the number of deaths it caused, air pollution was the fourth-highest risk factor globally in 2013 (see Figure 1). In developing countries, it was the third-highest risk factor for death in 2013.

Figure 1: Top risk factors for death, global, 2013

Air pollution Figure1

Source: Global, regional, and national comparative risk assessment of 79 behavioral, environmental and occupational, and metabolic risks or clusters of risks in 188 countries, 1990-2013: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013; see the data visualization here: http://ihmeuw.org/3qj8

Globally, air pollution disproportionately affects newborns and the elderly, as shown in Figure 2. Death rates from air pollution are highest in ages 0 to 6 days and 80 years and older.

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Figure 2: Rates of death from air pollution, global, 2013

Air pollution Figure2

Source: Global, regional, and national comparative risk assessment of 79 behavioral, environmental and occupational, and metabolic risks or clusters of risks in 188 countries, 1990-2013: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013; see the data visualization here: http://ihmeuw.org/3qjt

Worldwide, air pollution from sources such as vehicles and coal-fired power plants was responsible for the largest number of deaths in 2013, with household air pollution from cook stoves burning solid fuel a close second (Figure 3). Both types of air pollution were linked to deaths from chronic respiratory diseases, cardiovascular diseases, cancer and lower respiratory infections.

Figure 3: Number of deaths caused by different types of air pollution, global, 2013

Air pollution Figure3

Source: Global, regional, and national comparative risk assessment of 79 behavioral, environmental and occupational, and metabolic risks or clusters of risks in 188 countries, 1990-2013: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013; see the data visualization here: http://ihmeuw.org/3qjd

Even though air pollution is only a part of a country’s total CO2 emissions, it is worth pointing out that some of the countries that emit the largest amounts of CO2 have the most to gain from reducing air pollution levels. According to the U.S. Energy Administration, China, the United States, India, Russia, Brazil and Japan were among the 20 countries that emitted the most CO2 in 2012. These countries were also among the 20 countries that had the largest number of deaths from air pollution in 2013 (Figure 4). Other countries that ranked high for deaths from air pollution in 2013 included Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nigeria.

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Figure 4: Countries with the highest number of deaths from air pollution, 1990 and 2013

Air pollution Figure 4

Source: Global, regional, and national comparative risk assessment of 79 behavioral, environmental and occupational, and metabolic risks or clusters of risks in 188 countries, 1990-2013: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013; see the data visualization here: http://ihmeuw.org/3qjb

Governments have had little incentive to fight climate change since the negative impacts are projected to accrue so far down the road. However, we now know that cutting carbon emissions from sources such as transportation and burning of biomass (including coal and wood) can improve health right now.

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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.