When Cecilia Salas sees fumes of agricultural burning rising in the horizon, she knows it will be a bad day for her son.
Gabriel, 16, has suffered from serious respiratory problems like asthma for about a decade, Salas told ThinkProgress, and little has changed since he was first taken to a hospital. “His condition hasn’t improved,” she said in Spanish.
What at first was a simple cough became a heavy burden for Salas, 48, and her son, who every day takes various medications to keep his lungs working correctly. But Gabriel’s respiratory problems are stubborn, and even with medication he constantly suffers from painful shortness of breath.
“You know how in commercials they sometimes show a fish out of the water? That’s how it feels,” Gabriel said in Spanish, adding he loves sports but he can’t play like others do. He has to take medications, at times in the middle of a game.
To make matters worse, Salas is raising her family in rural Southern California. She lives just a mile away from vast agricultural fields that are burned every year for planting, and equally close to the Mexican city of Mexicali, one of the most air polluted cities in the world.
Salas said Gabriel’s breathing problems are exacerbated because of air pollution surrounding them, and wishes air quality was better. Maybe that would bring some relief. “It’s painful to see how he gets.” Salas said. “He’ll go to bed and be frantic as if his lungs are shutting down.”
While air pollution has long been known to harm people’s health, scientists have for years tried to narrow down on what this means to the world as far as costs, disease, and deaths. Now new research has found that air pollution is the leading environmental risk factor for disease, and the fourth highest risk factor for death.
The data is the newest addition to the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study, the most comprehensive international effort to measure epidemiological trends worldwide.
About 5.5 million people prematurely died in 2013 because of indoor and outdoor air pollution, according to data presented Saturday during the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science.
The data, which researchers say is intended to help policy-making decisions, comes days after the Supreme Court put a stay on the Clean Power Plan, which calls for reductions in carbon emissions from the electricity sector. It is likely to resonate with other major air polluting countries like India or China. India for instance, is starting to experiment with emission policies and China pushes to move away from coal amidst reaching record air pollution levels.
Jason West, associate professor of environmental sciences and engineering at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who was not part of the study, said the findings are not surprising based on past research, but noted the new data is nonetheless significant.
“There are about 55 million deaths each year,” he said. “That means that air pollution in general here is about 10 percent of the total.”
According to the Global Burden of Disease Study, air pollution causes more deaths than malnutrition, obesity, alcohol and drug abuse, and unsafe sex. Cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases, as wells as respiratory infections, account for the majority of deaths from air pollution. Furthermore, half of the air pollution mortality is statistically attributed to outdoor air pollution, researchers said, while the other half is attributed to indoor air pollution that generally comes from burning coal or wood for heating or cooking.
Researchers told ThinkProgress that developed countries including the United States have ameliorated air pollution mortality over the years, thanks to policies like the Clean Air Act. They noted in interviews however, that air pollution mortality is still a problem.
“The highest rates of mortality appear to be in two areas, the upper, sort of the industrial side of the Midwest — and to some extent the Northeast — and in Southern California, where you still have fairly high levels of air pollution,” said Dan Greenbaum, one of the researchers and president of the Health Effects Institute, a Boston based non-profit.
But researchers said new data point to even more staggering statistics. Almost 65 percent of outdoor air pollution related deaths occur in Asia, said Michael Brauer, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health. He noted air pollution mortality is particularly problematic for rapid developing economies like China and India. “That’s very sobering news,” Brauer said.
Qiao Ma, researcher at Tsinghua University in Beijing, found that outdoor air pollution from coal alone caused an estimated 366,000 deaths in China in 2013.
What’s more, she said deaths attributable to air pollution are predicted to increase in even the more conservative scenarios. In 2030, particulate matter pollution is projected to kill between 990,000 and 1.3 million people.
“We conclude that the reductions in these sectors, like domestic sectors and industrial coal burning, can lead to a large reduction to the burden of disease,” she told reporters, “so these sectors should be prioritized in the energy and air quality policies.”
In India, the numbers are equally dramatic, although in this case the burning of wood, dried dung, and agricultural residue play larger polluting roles. “We find that traditional biomass technologies are the single largest source contributing to present day emissions of air pollutants [for] India,” said Chandra Venkataraman, one of the researchers and a professor of chemical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay.
Still, “India needs a three-pronged mitigation approach to address biomass burning … in households and informal industry, industrial coal burning and open burning for clearing agricultural fields,” Venkataraman told ThinkProgress. As in China, India’s projection is dire, unless the country commits to what Venkataraman referred to as a “very stringent and ambitious scenario” for emissions.
“The challenge of providing affordable and clean residential energy solutions, on the magnitude of several hundred million households worldwide, needs committed global partnership,” she said.