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WHO study finds 7 million deaths in 2012 linked to air pollution

Seven million deaths worldwide in 2012, or 1 in 8, were caused by exposure to indoor and outdoor air pollution according to a new report released on Tuesday in Geneva, Switzerland by the World Health Organization (WHO).

A thick smog envelops Beijing, China on Feb. 25, 2014.
Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

In a press release from the WHO, the United Nations affiliated agency remarked, “This finding more than doubles previous estimates and confirms that air pollution is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk. Reducing air pollution could save millions of lives.”

There is a greater tie than previously known between air pollution and cancer, stroke, heart disease, respiratory infections, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD) and other similar afflictions, the WHO noted.

Indoor air pollution deaths, at approximately 4.3 million, were substantially higher in poor and middle income countries, particularly in Southeast Asia (1.69 million), the Western Pacific (1.62 million) and Africa (600,000) where there are larger populations of people cooking with coal and wood-fueled stoves. Other regions noted in the study and their respective deaths due to indoor air pollution are the Eastern Mediterranean region (200,000), Europe (99,000) and North and South America (81,000). Due to safer home cooking and heating in higher income countries there were only 19,000 deaths total attributed to indoor air pollution-related illnesses.

WHO Assistant Director-General Family, Women and Children’s Health Dr. Flavia Bustreo stated, “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.

“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,” Dr. Bustreo added.

Outdoor air pollution deaths, at approximately 3.7 million, were also substantially higher in poor and middle income countries in Southeast Asia (1.67 million) the Western Pacific (936,000), the Eastern Mediterranean (236,000), Europe (200,000), Africa (176,000) and North and South America (58,000). Higher income nations also accounted for a substantial number of the air pollution deaths in Europe (280,000), North and South America (94,000), the Western Pacific (67,000) and the Eastern Mediterranean region (14,000).

Due to the overlapping of many who may have been exposed to significant indoor and outdoor air pollution risks the total number of fatalities is not a simple sum of each.

Concerning the importance of the study in the press release WHO Coordinator for Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health Dr. Carlos Dora said,

“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. 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.”

World Health Organization. “Air Pollution Estimates.” WHO. 25 March 2014. Web (pdf). 26 March 2014.

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