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Study identifies outdoor air pollution as the ‘largest existential threat to human and planetary health’

Deaths from exposure to emissions from vehicles, smoke stacks and wildfires have increased by more than 50% this century, with poorer countries bearing the brunt of it. The economic impact is not inconsiderable.

Victoria St Martin

It is obvious that the effect of pollution on human welfare and health, as well as the health of the planet, have major economic implications. Examples of pollution include

(a) Excessive output of the gaseous oxides of carbon, nitrogen and sulphur, hydrogen sulphide, methane and other gases, as well as microparticles of carbon and other carcinogens, all of which are forms of pollution. These emissions produce unnecessary human health impacts (which include deaths) from introducing these gases and particles to both rural and urban environments, leading to reductions in human work efficiency and productivity; and (b) The possible extinction of animal species like bees (that we rely on for the production of fruits and vegetables) is clearly associated with the undiscriminating and excessive use of pesticides and insecticides. [Ed]

Since the turn of the century, global deaths attributable to air pollution have increased by more than half, a development that researchers say under- scores the impact of pollution as the “largest existential threat to human and planetary health”.

The findings are part of a recent study published in The Lancet Planetary Health, which found that pollution was responsible for an estimated 9 million deaths around the world in 2019. Half of those fatalities, 4.5 million deaths, were the result of ambient, or outdoor, air pollution, which is typically emitted by vehicles and industrial sources like power plants and factories.

The number of deaths that are attributable to ambient air pollution increased by about 55 percent — to 4.5 million from 2.9 million — since the year 2000.


“Anyang, China, severe air pollution” by V.T. Polywoda is licenced by CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Deaths from ambient air and chemical pollution were so prevalent, the study- ’s authors said, that they offset a decline in the number of deaths from other pollution sources typically related to conditions of extreme poverty, including indoor air pollution and water pollution.

“Pollution is still the largest existential threat to human and planetary health and jeopardizes the sustainability of modern societies,” according to Philip Landrigan, a co-author of the report who directs the Global Public Health Program and Global Pollution Observatory at Boston College.

The report noted that countries with lower collective incomes often bear a disproportionate share of the impacts of pollution deaths, and called on governments, businesses and other entities to abandon fossil fuels and adopt clean energy sources.

“Despite its enormous health, social and economic impacts, prevention of pollution is largely overlooked in the international development agenda”, says Richard Fuller, the study’s lead author, who is the founder and CEO of the non-profit environmental group Pure Earth. “Attention and funding has only minimally increased since 2015, despite well-documented increases in public concern about pollution and its health effects”.

The peer-reviewed study, produced by the 2017 Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, using data from the 2015 Global Burden of Disease (GBD), found that roughly 1.2 million deaths were attributable to household air pollution (which generally comes from tobacco smoke, household products and appliances); about 1.3 million deaths were attributable to water pollution and 900,000 deaths were attributable to lead pollution

The study’s authors wrote that, all told, roughly 16 percent of deaths around the world are attributable to pollution, which resulted in more than $4 trillion in global economic losses.

Ambient air pollution can be generated by a range of sources, including wild- fires.

Deepti Singh, an assistant professor at the School of the Environment at the Washington State University, co-authored a separate study into how wild- fires, extreme heat and wind patterns can deteriorate air quality.

She noted how in recent years smoke from wildfires in California and the American West has travelled across the United States all the way to the East Coast. At one point during the 2020 wildfire season, Singh said,

residents in as much as 70 percent of the Western U.S. experienced negative air quality because of the blazes in the West.

“That wildfire smoke, you know, it has multiple harmful air pollutants,” Singh said. “We don’t even fully understand all the things that are in that smoke. But we know that it’s increasing fine particulate matter, which is something that directly affects our health. It’s something that we can inhale and it affects our cardiovascular and respiratory systems, and it can cause premature mortality and developmental harm — many, many different health impacts associated with that.”


Inside Climate News, 17 May 2022

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