Seven million premature deaths a year are linked to air pollution – that’s one in eight of total global deaths annually. This finding from the World Health Organisation (WHO) more than doubles previous estimates and confirms that air pollution is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk.
In particular, the new data published by WHO this week reveal a stronger link between both indoor and outdoor air pollution exposure and cardiovascular diseases, such as strokes and ischaemic heart disease, as well as between air pollution and cancer. This is in addition to air pollution’s role in the development of respiratory diseases, including acute respiratory infections and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases.
Who claims reducing air pollution could save millions of lives. Dr Flavia Bustreo, WHO assistant director-general Family, Women and Children’s Health, 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.”
Included in the assessment is a breakdown of deaths attributed to specific diseases, underlining that the vast majority of air pollution deaths are due to cardiovascular diseases as follows:
Outdoor air pollution-caused deaths – breakdown by disease:
- 40% – ischaemic heart disease
- 40% – stroke
- 11% – chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- 6% – lung cancer
- 3% – acute lower respiratory infections in children
Indoor air pollution-caused deaths – breakdown by disease:
- 34% – stroke
- 26% – ischaemic heart disease
- 22% – COPD
- 12% – acute lower respiratory infections in children
- 6% – lung cancer
In the case of outdoor air pollution, WHO estimates there were 3.7 million deaths in 2012 from urban and rural sources worldwide. Indoor air pollution was linked to 4.3 million deaths in 2012 in households cooking over coal, wood and biomass stoves.
“The risks from air pollution are now far greater than previously thought or understood, particularly for heart disease and strokes,” says Dr Maria Neira, director of WHO’s department for public health, environmental and social determinants of health. “Few risks have a greater impact on global health today than air pollution; the evidence signals the need for concerted action to clean up the air we all breathe.”
Many people are exposed to both indoor and outdoor air pollution. Due to this overlap, mortality attributed to the two sources cannot simply be added together, hence the total estimate of around 7 million deaths in 2012.
Dr Carlos Dora, WHO coordinator for public health, environmental and social determinants of health, added:
“Excessive air pollution is often a by-product of unsustainable policies in sectors such as transport, energy, waste management and industry. In most cases, healthier strategies will also be more economical in the long term due to health-care cost savings as well as climate gains.”
The release of this week’s data is a significant step in advancing a WHO roadmap for preventing diseases related to air pollution. This involves the development of a WHO-hosted global platform on air quality and health to generate better data on air pollution-related diseases and strengthened support to countries and cities through guidance, information and evidence about health gains from key interventions.
Later this year, WHO will release indoor air quality guidelines on household fuel combustion, as well as country data on outdoor and indoor air pollution exposures and related mortality, plus an update of air quality measurements in 1600 cities from all regions of the world.