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Sunday, 30 March 2014

Air pollution kills 7 million annually, one in eight global deaths. Fact, fiction, fallacy or fantasy?

The WHO caught a bit of attention when on March 25th it announced that there were 7 million deaths annually from deteriorated air quality due to air pollution.  That is actually one out of every 8 deaths globally every year and the largest single environmental cause of death.

Fact, fiction, fallacy or fantasy?

Foremost is the fact that air pollution kills, and kills more people that we have tended to acknowledge in the past.  The increased levels of mortality are in part due to increased pollution, particularly in the Indo-China region where rapid development has not been linked to pollution control measures that have benefited regions like Europe. 

Increased numbers are due to an increased recognition of the role of air pollutants in activating inflammatory cascades that contribute to heart attacks and strokes.

Further contributing to the increased numbers are better measures of exposure and the ability to model exposures where measurement is not readily available.

The fiction in part is the headlines read as if these are societal pollutants, whereas nearly one-third of the deaths are due to indoor air pollution, the most common cause being inefficiently and incomplete combustion in cooking and heating fires.  Interventions are possible at the individual level, where outdoor pollution is controllable only through societal level change.  While those individual interventions are achievable, they are not achievable without concerted effort and affordable cleaner wood or coal burning indoor appliances.

The fallacy component comes through in that of the 7 million deaths, 5.9 are linked to SE Asia and Western Pacific areas (Indo-Chinese corridor), an area that represents at most 60% of the global population, putting the risk for inhabitants substantially higher than any other region.

Sadly, there is no fantasy in this story.  Without drastic and immediate intervention, air pollutants will continue their rapid increase in developing countries that rely on organic fuel consumption for electricity as well as basic needs like heat and cooking.  Read the WHO story, including the attributions of death by location at WHO media centre

Finding trends in air pollution levels in China is not easy, however there is some reported at Pollutant trends for China. The report at least demonstrates the rapid short term increases in the middle of last decade.   Information from India is even scarcer.    

While it is easy to decry the increased pollution, it was noted in global summits on climate change that developing countries were being penalized by expectations that developed countries could not (would not) achieve and concurrently would stifle economic expansion integral to a community vibrancy that supports health.  

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