Air pollution is responsible for seven million deaths around the world each year, according to a new report from the World Health Organization (WHO). The health agency says that pollution has now become the single greatest environmental health risk, contributing to one out of every eight global deaths.
According to the WHO report, outdoor pollution contributes to 3.7 million deaths each year, about 80 percent of which result from incidences of stroke and heart disease that are linked to pollution. Meanwhile, indoor pollution, which tends to result from cooking over coal or wood stoves, contributes to another 4.3 million deaths. Since some people are exposed to both types of pollution, WHO took the overlap into account to reach the overall seven million number.
“The risks from air pollution are now far greater than previously thought or understood, particularly for heart disease and strokes,” WHO’s Dr. Maria Neira said in a statement. “Few risks have a greater impact on global health today than air pollution; the evidence signals the need for concerted action to clean up the air we all breathe.”
In 2008, the last time WHO officials attempted to calculate the number of deaths resulting from air pollution, the agency estimated that outdoor pollution killed 1.3 million people and indoor pollution killed 1.9 million. Research methods have advanced since then and now allow WHO to collect better data, particularly in rural areas.
Although it’s clear that pollution is a big contributor to strokes and heart disease, it’s been linked to several other health issues as well. Long-term exposure to dirty air is connected to asthma, kidney damage, and autism. Last fall, WHO officially classified air pollution as a carcinogen, concluding that it puts people at a higher risk for lung and bladder cancers.
The dramatic impacts of air pollution have recently been evident in Paris, where officials started offering free public transportation to cut down on dangerous smog, and Beijing, where some “smog clinics” opened their doors to treat residents suffering from cardiovascular issues. China recently declared a “war on smog” to tackle the persistent public health issue.
But these issues are evident here in the United States, too, where an estimated 42 percent of the population lives in an area where air pollution often reaches dangerous levels. This issue disproportionately impacts low-income people and communities of color, who are more likely to live in neighborhoods that have dirty air even though they’re less likely to contribute to polluting emissions.