The World Health Organization (WHO) released new estimates on air pollution, revealing that seven million premature deaths in 2012 are the result of air pollution exposure. This staggering number is the equivalent of one in eight deaths around the world and more than doubles the previous estimates. The WHO data confirm that air pollution is now the world’s most severe environmental health risk.
Two factors come into play with this new research. With current technology, researchers are able to better assess human exposure to air pollutants, and they have more knowledge regarding the air pollution-disease connection, which has allowed them to link a wider demographic to this health risk. Secondly, the indoor and outdoor air we breathe is becoming more toxic – at home and abroad. According to the American Lung Association, an estimated 42 percent of Americans live in areas with frequently high levels of air pollution. That’s over 130 million Americans breathing dangerous air on a daily basis. Not surprisingly, the majority are low-income people and communities comprised primarily of non-white Americans, even though they are less likely to contribute to air pollution.
The bad news for low- and middle-income people plays out globally as well, according to the WHO. Southeast Asia and countries in the western Pacific region carried the most severe air pollution burden in 2012, with an estimated 3.3 million deaths linked to indoor air pollution and another 2.6 million deaths attributed to outdoor air pollution. In many countries with higher levels of poverty, indoor cooking with wood, coal or dung results in greater exposure to soot and smoke. Consequently, women, children and the elderly are at great risk from indoor air pollution.
Dr. Maria Neira, Director of WHO’s Department for Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, stated that, “The risks of air pollution are now far greater than previously thought or understood, particularly for heart disease and strokes.” An alarming 80 percent of outdoor air pollution-caused deaths are equally divided between ischaemic heart disease and stroke. Sixty percent of indoor air pollution-caused deaths also fall into these categories.
The greatest sources of air pollution include consumer products, such as cars and trucks; industrial and manufacturing operations; and energy generation facilities like coal-fired power plants. Since many of these factors can be regulated, government policy is instrumental in addressing this serious threat. Dr. Carlos Dora, WHO Coordinator for Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, remarked that, “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.”
Lower levels of air pollution will reduce the number of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases affecting people around the world. The WHO advocates for the reduction of air pollution levels by countries to reduce the burden of disease from stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and both chronic and acute respiratory diseases, including asthma.
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