A Breath of (Not So) Fresh Air
If a report were released that forecast 1.3 million premature deaths during the next 15 years due to an emerging pandemic disease threat, it would dominate the news media headlines and spur strong public reaction demanding that some action be undertaken to prevent, mitigate and manage such a major global disaster. Apparently, things continue mostly business-as-usual without much focus or discussion if the killer agent is chronic and acute air pollution.
An Air Pollution Disaster
According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), air pollution is a mixture of natural and man-made substances in the air we breathe. It is typically separated into two categories: outdoor air pollution and indoor air pollution. Outdoor air pollution involves exposures that take place outside of the built environment. Examples include:
- Fine particles produced by the burning of fossil fuels (i.e. the coal and petroleum used in traffic and energy production)
- Noxious gases (sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, chemical vapors, etc.)
- Ground-level ozone (a reactive form of oxygen and a primary component of urban smog)
- Tobacco smoke
Indoor air pollution involves exposures to particulates, carbon oxides and other pollutants carried by indoor air or dust. Examples include:
- Gases (carbon monoxide, radon, etc.)
- Household products and chemicals
- Building materials (asbestos, formaldehyde, lead, etc.)
- Outdoor indoor allergens (cockroach and mouse dropping, etc.)
- Tobacco smoke
- Mold and pollen
According to NIEHS, over the past 30 years, researchers have unearthed a wide array of health effects which are believed to be associated with air pollution exposure. Among them are respiratory diseases (including asthma and changes in lung function), cardiovascular diseases, adverse pregnancy outcomes (such as preterm birth) and even death.
In 2013, the World Health Organization concluded that outdoor air pollution is carcinogenic to humans.
Worsening Air Pollution Disaster
According to recently released research, (Air Pollution Will Eventually Be Responsible for 1.3 Million Deaths In 2030) air pollution is one of the top global risk factors linked to many diseases. The research findings suggest that the number of deaths attributed to air pollution will continue to rise in the next few years.
There are 5.5 million fatalities each year as a direct result of air pollution induced disease. Half of those deaths occur in China and India, two countries that are growing fast in the industry department. Air pollution numbers are highest in countries with fast-developing economies, like China, India, Pakistan, Japan and Brazil.
“’Air pollution is the fourth highest risk factor for death globally and by far the leading environmental risk factor for disease,’ said Dr. Michael Brauer, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health in Vancouver, Canada. He added that it’s imperative that air pollution is reduced since it is the most efficient way of improving the ‘health of a population.’”
Factors such as vehicles, power plants and industry have much to do with the current air pollution numbers. A 2015 study noted that 3 million deaths occur every year thanks to pollution. Qiao Ma, a Ph.D. student at the School of Environment at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, said that “air pollution will cause anywhere between 990,000 to 1.3 million premature deaths in 2030.”
The major study The Contribution of Outdoor Air Pollution Sources to Premature Mortality on a Global Scale authored by J. Lelieveld, J. S. Evans, M. Fnais, D. Giannadaki and A. Pozzer provides an assessment of the global reach of disease is based on epidemiological cohort studies that connect premature mortality to a wide range of air pollution types. Using a global atmospheric chemistry model to investigate the link between premature mortality and seven emission source categories in urban and rural environments the researchers calculate that outdoor air pollution leads to up to 3.3 million of premature deaths per year worldwide.
The researchers find that emissions from residential energy use such as heating and cooking, prevalent in India and China, have the largest impact on premature mortality globally. Whereas in much of the U.S. and in a few other countries, emissions from traffic and power generation are important. In the eastern U.S, Europe, Russia and East Asia, agricultural emissions make the largest relative contribution, with the estimate of overall health impact depending on assumptions regarding particle toxicity. Model projections based on a business-as-usual emission scenarios indicate that the contribution of outdoor air pollution to premature mortality could double to by 2050.
According to the WHO (World Health Organization), around 3 billion people cook and heat their homes using solid fuels (i.e. wood, charcoal, coal, dung, crop wastes) on open fires or traditional stoves. Such inefficient cooking and heating practices produce high levels of household (indoor) air pollution which includes a range of health damaging pollutants such as fine particles and carbon monoxide. In poorly ventilated dwellings, smoke in and around the home can exceed acceptable levels for fine particles 100-fold. Exposure is particularly high among women and young children who spend the most time near the domestic hearth. According to WHO, 4.3 million people a year die from the exposure to household air pollution.
A Major Disaster Looms
Perhaps what is most striking about the air pollution/disease link disaster is that this determination has not resulted in dramatic efforts for mitigation, communication and/or response efforts.
To read The Interagency Working Group on Climate Change and Health’s full report (A Human Health Perspective On Climate Change) on climate change and the worsening air pollution disaster please click here.
The need for advancing health communication and contingency plans to cope with the coming increases in health problems and disaster, along with decreases in productivity and performance that will accompany these consequential developments, is great. In addition, the economic costs for both business and society will increase in coming years unless a viable public sector – private sector partnership is enacted and sustained in the near future.