Nine out of every 10 people on the planet are now breathing polluted air, and eight million die each year of pollution-related disease, even though many more countries around the world are finally taking action, reports the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), citing data from the World Health Organization (WHO).
“Air pollution threatens us all, but the poorest and most marginalized people bear the brunt of the burden,” said WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
PAHO based its release on the WHO’s newly-updated global database on air quality, which tracks annual mean concentrations of fine particulates of heart- and lung-damaging pollutants like black carbon, sulphates, and nitrates along with common indoor air pollutants. “Ambient air pollution alone caused some 4.2 million deaths in 2016,” the WHO notes, while toxins released from cooking over open fires or inefficient stoves “caused an estimated 3.8 million deaths in the same period.”
The global agency “has been monitoring household air pollution for more than a decade, and while the rate of access to clean fuels and technologies is increasing everywhere, improvements are not even keeping pace with population growth in many parts of the world, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa,” the PAHO release states.
The new data shows that “more than 90% of air pollution-related deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, mainly in Asia and Africa, followed by low- and middle-income countries of the Eastern Mediterranean region, Europe, and the Americas.” By contrast, “in general, ambient air pollution levels are lowest in high-income countries, particularly in Europe, the Americas, and the Western Pacific.”
While there has been a significant global increase in cities recording and sharing air pollution data with the WHO, signaling “an acceleration of political interest in this global public health challenge,” air pollution data is still severely lacking, especially in Africa and parts of the Western Pacific, said Dr. Maria Neira, Director of the WHO’s Department of Public Health, Social and Environmental Determinants of Health.
On the other hand, where governments are collecting data, serious efforts are being made to rein in air pollution. For example, “in just two years, India’s Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana Scheme has provided some 37 million women living below the poverty line with free LPG [liquid petroleum gas] connections to support them to switch to clean household energy use,” PAHO states.
A recent MIT study on the economic benefits of China’s crackdown on coal pollution makes clear that cleaner air means reduced health costs, which translates into more money in government coffers. Quartz writes that the MIT team, composed of atmospheric scientists as well as economists, considered four different scenarios in which China failed to rein in its emissions by continuing to burn coal beyond 2030, or reduced emission by 3%, 4%, or 5% per year. “Under the 3%, 4%, and 5% plans,” Quartz reports, “China could avoid 36,000, 94,000, and 160,000 pollution-related deaths, and save about US$138.4 billion, $339.5 billion, and $534.8 billion in related health care costs, respectively.”
Having adopted the 4% scenario as part of its commitment under the Paris agreement, China stands to “save $464.5 billion in health care costs, against an estimated $125 billion price tag to enact cleaner environmental policies,” the publication notes.