Air pollution causes an estimated 8.79 million premature deaths each year, according to a new study published in European Heart Journal.
The majority of deaths are caused by cardiovascular diseases, and the remainder come primarily from lung diseases. The new study, which focuses on Europe, demonstrates that more people die each year by breathing in contaminated air than they do from smoking. Previously, the World Health Organization estimated that 7 million people died annually from air pollution.
“Air pollution is one of those problems that everyone is exposed to,” Jesse Berman, assistant professor of environmental health sciences at University of Minnesota, told Global Citizen. “We all have to breathe.”
“But certain people are more vulnerable to it than others — the elderly, young children, asthmatics,” he added.
Air pollution comes from a variety of sources, including industrial, agricultural, waste-burning facilities, and air conditioners. But the bulk of toxic contaminants in the air are generated by burning fossil fuels, according to the National Resource Defense Council.
As fossil fuels are burned for energy, they release smog, sulfur, particulate matter, and a range of other contaminants.
Particulate matter 2.5, also known as PM 2.5, is regarded as the most dangerous environmental hazard by the Environmental Protection Agency, and it builds up in the atmosphere largely through the burning of fossil fuels. PM 2.5 particles are 20 to 50 times smaller than human hairs and lodge in the lungs when humans breathe, causing myriad health problems.
“PM 2.5 carry heavy metals and heavy toxins,” Berman said. “The smaller they are, the deeper into the lungs they penetrate, and the deeper they get, the easier it is for them to affect our respiratory and cardiovascular systems.”
On average, people who die prematurely from air pollution lose 2.2 years of their life.
The report notes that countries such as Ukraine and Romania that burn more and dirtier forms of fossil fuel — such as coal — have higher death rates from air pollution. The more a country invests in clean forms of energy, the report says, the less its people will be exposed to air pollution and the less people will die from it.
As a result, the report doubles as a call to action, with the authors explicitly calling for a global transition to sustainable forms of clean energy like wind and solar as a way to minimize premature air pollution deaths.
“The switch from fossil to clean, renewable energy sources is a highly effective health promotion intervention,” the report says.
As climate change intensifies around the world, the ongoing burning of fossil fuels poses other health risks as well. For example, deaths from heat waves, floods, droughts, the spread of climate-related diseases, and more are expected to skyrocket in the decades ahead.
One limitation of the study that could be explored in future examinations is its exclusive focus on outdoor forms of pollution, according to an expert who spoke with Newsweek.
“The study looks at modeled outdoor air pollution, but most of us live our lives indoors for much of the day," Francis Pope, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Birmingham, told Newsweek.
"Some estimates suggest we spend less than 10% of our time outdoors,” Pope added. “Hence, we need to know much more about our indoor exposure to air pollution to be able to completely model the burden of air quality upon human health.”