In 2012, seven million people died of air pollution exposure, according to new estimates published on Tuesday (25 March) by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Air pollution now is the cause behind one in eight global deaths, and is now the world’s largest single health risk.
The new data reveal a stronger link between both indoor and outdoor air pollution exposure and cardiovascular diseases, such as strokes, ischaemic heart disease, and cancer. In addition, air pollution also plays a role in the development of respiratory diseases, including acute respiratory infections.
The new estimates are based on assessment of human exposure to air pollutants through improved measurements and technology, enabling scientists to make a more detailed analysis of health risks from a wider demographic spread, which now includes rural as well as urban areas, the WHO said.
“Cleaning up the air we breathe prevents noncommunicable diseases as well as reduces disease risks among women and vulnerable groups, including children and the elderly,” said Dr Flavia Bustreo, assistant director-general for Family, Women and Children’s Health at the WHO.
The health organisation estimates that indoor air pollution was linked to 4.3 million deaths in 2012 in households with cooking over coal, wood and biomass stoves. The new estimate is explained by better information about pollution exposures among the estimated 2.9 billion people living in homes using wood, coal or dung as their primary cooking fuel, as well as evidence about air pollution’s role in the development of cardiovascular disease and cancers.
As air pollution is often a by-product of unsustainable policies in sectors such as transport, energy, waste management and industry, according to the WHO, healthier strategies would be both more economical in the long term, due to healthcare cost savings, as well as create climate gains.
The European Environment Agency (EEA) says the following are leading pollutants that affect the health of humans and ecosystems:
Nitrogen oxides (NOX): Emitted from fuel combustion, including power plants and vehicles. Of the chemical groups that comprise NOX, NO2 has the most adverse effects on health.
Sulphur dioxide (SO2): Emitted when fuels containing sulphur. Like NOX, SO2 contributes to acid rain and the formation of particulate matter.
Ammonia (NH3): Like NOX and SO2, ammonia pollutes ecosystems. Some 94% of NH3 emissions in Europe come from agriculture.
Non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs): Emitted from industry, road transport and dry-cleaning.
Particulate matter (PM): Smoke, dirt and dust form coarse particles known as PM10, and metals and toxic exhaust from smelting, vehicle exhaust, power plants and refuse burning forming fine particles are called PM 2.5.
Organic micro-pollutants: Benzene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and dioxins and furans. Emitted by the combustion of fuels and wastes, and from industrial processes.
Carbon dioxide (CO2): Caused by the combustion of fuels such as coal, oil, natural gas and biomass used in industrial, domestic and transport purposes. It is the most significant greenhouse gas influencing climate change.
- World Health Organization (WHO): 7 million premature deaths annually linked to air pollution
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