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Toxic Air Pollution: The Other Pandemic

Updated: Jun 3, 2020

Nick Webb investigates the latest research suggesting theirs a second front when it comes to battling global pandemics.

Photo by David Lee

At a time when a large portion of the population of the world is on lockdown due to the coronavirus, new research has been published showing how levels of air pollution can now be seen as another “pandemic”.

Research published by the European Society of Cardiology (ESC) in their publication Cardiovascular Research shows how on average, lives are shortened by almost three years worldwide due to different sources of air pollution. The findings show that air pollution is responsible for shortening life on a greater scale than wars and violence, diseases such as Malaria and HIV/AIDS, and smoking.

Using new methods, the researchers measured the effects of different sources of air pollution on death rates, and its effects on different categories of disease. The study showed how globally, air pollution was the cause of 8.8 million premature deaths in 2015 alone, and that cardiovascular diseases caused by air pollution are responsible for 43% of cases.

The Impact of Pollution

Professor Jos Lelieveld, lead author on the research paper, and of the Cyprus Institute said: “It is remarkable that both the number of deaths and the loss in life expectancy from air pollution rival the effect of tobacco smoking and are much higher than other causes of death.”

A co-author on the paper, Professor Münzel, has said that the impact of air pollution on overall public health was much higher than expected, and that it is a global phenomenon. The research calls on policy-makers to pay more attention to this, as the study also separated avoidable causes of air pollution such as smoking and other human-generated sources from natural pollution (wildfires, desert dust emissions).

They believe that air pollution, which has been neglected by cardiologists looking at ill health, should be included as a significant risk factor along with smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, and cholesterol in guidelines on preventing heart syndromes and heart failure.

“About two-thirds of premature deaths are attributable to human-made air pollution, mainly from fossil fuel use; this goes up to 80% in high-income countries. Five and a half million deaths worldwide a year are potentially avoidable” – Prof Münzel

The paper shows how levels of pollution are not evenly spread across the world’s population centres, and how different regions experience different levels of emissions.

East Asia has the highest expectancy of loss of life, due to high levels of avoidable emissions and a large population; there is up to three or four years of lost life in these countries. Europe and America’s 1-2 years of lost life expectancy could be largely prevented by phasing out burning fossil fuels.

This paper is the first to break down the connection between levels of emissions and life expectancy data in this way, considering population density, ages and other risk factors.

What Can be Done?

While the research paper shows a much higher than expected impact on loss of life on the population, to the extent that the authors have used the term “pandemic”, they do also postulate that much of the pollution causing the increasing loss of life is avoidable.

Lowering levels of smoking and reducing the burning of fossil fuels across the world would decrease the number of harmful particles in the atmosphere and the average life expectancy worldwide would increase by a year.


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