Air pollution is on the rise around the world. For every country that’s working to reduce emissions, there are five more increasing consumption of fossil fuels. And it’s not just the environment that’s suffering.
A recent report by the World Health Organization (WHO) found that around 7 million people died — one in eight of total global deaths — as a result of air pollution exposure in 2012. This finding more than doubles previous estimates and confirms that air pollution is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk.
Think you’re safe because you live far away from the congestion of major cities? Think again. The WHO report found that outdoor air pollution in both cities and rural areas was estimated to cause 3.7 million premature deaths worldwide.
Here‘s what your future could hold if we don‘t crack down on big polluters and transition to a clean energy economy.
1. Respiratory Disease
According to the American Lung Association, overwhelming evidence shows that particle pollution–like that coming from that exhaust smoke and coal-fired power plants–interferes with the growth and work of the lungs. Even “short-term exposure to particle pollution can kill,” reads the 2013 State of the Air report. “Peaks or spikes in particle pollution can last for hours to days Deaths can occur on the very day that particle levels are high, or within one to two months afterward. Particle pollution does not just make people die a few days earlier than they might otherwise—these are deaths that would not have occurred if the air were cleaner.”
2. Lung Cancer
Don’t smoke cigarettes? You could still die of lung cancer. A book published in 2013 found that air pollution contributes to millions of premature deaths, including 223,000 deaths from lung cancer. More than half of the lung cancer deaths caused by particulate pollution were projected to have been in China and other East Asian countries. This revelation led the WHO to classify air pollution as carcinogenic to humans [PDF].
3. Cardiovascular Disease
“Short-term exposure can increase the risk of heart attack, stroke, arrhythmias and heart failure in susceptible people, such as the elderly or those with pre-existing medical conditions,” states the American Heart Association. “The risk of death is greater from long-term exposure. Current science suggests air pollution facilitates atherosclerosis development and progression. It also may play a role in high blood pressure, heart failure and diabetes.”
As if the health risks from ambient air pollution weren’t scary enough, new research suggests that living in an area of poor air quality might increase the probability of suicide. In 2010, an Asian study reported links between air pollution and suicide rates in South Korea; and between air pollution, asthma and suicides in Taiwan. Now, University of Utah scientists say they have discovered similar links right here in America. The study, conducted in Salt Lake County, “found that the odds of committing suicide in the county spiked 20 percent following three days of high nitrogen dioxide pollution—which is produced when fossil fuels are burned and after fertilizer is applied to fields. They also found that Utahans were five percent more likely to kill themselves following three days of breathing in air laced with high levels of fine particulate matter, also known as soot,” reports John Upton for PS Mag.
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