Dirty air is one of the world’s leading risk factors for death, and threatens the immediate health of billions globally.
In fact, a new interactive report by the Health Effects Institute found that 95% of the world’s population is breathing dangerously polluted air, with low and middle-income countries suffering the most.
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Air pollution, which can negatively impact everything from the heart and lungs to the immune system, isn’t just caused by smog from factories. It is also created by cars, stoves, and other smaller-scale sources. And contaminants resulting from both large-scale industry and individual activities in the home can linger in the air both outdoors and indoors.
The report broke air pollution into three main categories: fine particulate matter, ozone, and household air pollution.
Fine particulate matter is what most people think of when they think of air pollution — the tiny particles in smoke, smog, and other byproducts of large-scale fossil fuel-burning that can be inhaled into one’s lungs and cause health problems. The report estimates that 95% of people around the world live in areas where concentrations of fine particle matter exceed World Health Organization guidelines, and 60% live in areas where concentrations exceed the WHO’s “least stringent” targets.
Ozone is a greenhouse gas formed by pollutants in the atmosphere reacting with each other. It can irritate sensitive tissue in the airways and lungs, causing health issues. According to the report, ozone contributed to an estimated 234,000 deaths from chronic lung disease around the world in 2016.
Household air pollution arises from the burning of wood, dung, and other “biomass” in order to cook or heat homes without proper ventilation, a practice most common in sub-Saharan Africa. Approximately 2.6 million deaths worldwide in 2016 can be attributed to household air pollution, the report found.
The health risks of air pollution are not equally felt around the world.
Many developed countries are able to channel resources into limiting air pollution while developing countries often skip those efforts in favor of economic growth, according to Bob O’Keefe, vice president of the Health Effects Institute. O’Keefe told The Guardian that there is now an 11-fold gap between the most polluted and least polluted areas of the world. In 1990, the gap was just over half as wide.
According to the report’s interactive data, Afghanistan, Papua New Guinea, and the Central African Republic had the highest rates of death attributable to air pollution in 2016. Meanwhile, 1.61 million deaths in India and 1.58 million deaths in China were attributable to air pollution.
Despite massive global exposure to dirty air, there are reasons for optimism, O’Keefe told The Guardian, especially since governments in countries with the largest amounts of air pollution are taking big steps to mitigate it.
“China seems to be now moving pretty aggressively, for instance in cutting coal and on stronger controls. India has really begun to step up on indoor air pollution,” O’Keefe said.
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