Air pollution killed seven million people in 2012, confirming that it is now the world’s largest environmental health risk.
The figures, released today by the World Health Organisation, are more than double previous estimates. It means that in 2012, air pollution was responsible for one in eight total global deaths.
“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 the Department for Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health at the WHO.
“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.”
Along with strokes and heart disease, respiratory infections and lung cancer are also killing people as a result of air pollution.
Air pollution can occur both inside and outside. About 2.9 billion people live in home where wood, coal or biomass is used as the primary cooking fuel. This produces tiny soot particles that get into the lungs, particularly in poorly ventilated houses.
The WHO estimates that this was linked to 4.3 million deaths in 2012, with woman and young children particularly badly affected because they spend more time around the stove.
“Poor women and children pay a heavy price from indoor air pollution since they spend more time at home breathing in smoke and soot from leaky coal and wood cook stoves,” says Dr Flavia Bustreo, who deals with family, women’s and children’s health at the WHO.
Outside, air pollution is caused mainly by burning coal and by transport. The WHO estimates that this caused 3.7 million deaths in 2012. Many people are exposed to both indoor and outdoor air pollution.
The worst affected areas are low- and middle-income countries in South East Asia and the Western Pacific, according to the WHO, where a total of 3.3 million deaths were linked to indoor air pollution, and a further 2.6 million related to outdoor air pollution.
Policies to combat air pollution could be good for the economy as well as the inhabitants of any given region, says Dr Carlos Dora, Coordinator for Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health at the WHO.
“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,” he said.
“WHO and health sectors have a unique role in translating scientific evidence on air pollution into policies that can deliver impact and improvements that will save lives.”