Air pollution kills far more people than AIDS, malaria, or tuberculosis. It even kills about half as many people as smoking does. And yet air pollution doesn’t claim the spotlight the same way as other major health threats, perhaps because we see it as a side-effect to necessary and desirable things (food, energy generation) and more of an environmental problem than a health one.
But, like we say, air pollution kills a lot of people, as a new paper published in the journal Nature shows. It finds that 3.3 million people die prematurely each year because of poor air quality. Based on current trends, it expects the contribution of air pollution to premature mortality to double by 2050.
The study, which uses an atmospheric model and a wide range of data, looks at seven sources of air pollution: residential energy use, agriculture, natural sources (like volcanic eruptions), power generation, industry, biomass burning, and land traffic. Heating and cooking has the largest impact, accounting for 60% of deaths from pollution in Indonesia, and 50% of those in India, for example.
China has the greatest number of deaths from air pollution (1.35 million) followed by India (645,000) and Pakistan (111,000). The U.S. sees 55,000 premature deaths overall each year, of which 31% come from power generation.
The mortality rate from outdoor pollution is in line with other studies, including those from the World Health Organization. But the new report puts more blame on agriculture than others, finding that farms are the biggest cause of dangerous air pollution in Europe, Russia, Turkey, Korea, Japan, and the eastern U.S.
“Whereas in much of the USA and in a few other countries emissions from traffic and power generation are important, in eastern USA, Europe, Russia, and East Asia agricultural emissions make the largest relative contribution to [fine particulate matter],” the paper says. For example, ammonia in fertilizer combines in the environment to form ammonium sulphate, a type of particulate known as PM 2.5.
“Our main aim is to distinguish between classes to give policy makers a better handle on abatement of air pollution,” says lead author Jos Lelieveld, a professor at the Max Planck Institute in Germany.