Air pollution kills millions annually, says WHO

A new report released on Tuesday by the World Health Organisation (WHO) found that air pollution is responsible for one in eight of all global deaths – double the previous estimate. The seven million deaths annually were from a combination of indoor and outdoor air pollution. 

In its research, the health organisation found strong links between indoor and outdoor air pollution and cardiovascular diseases – like strokes and ischaemic heart disease. These two were responsible for more than half of the deaths. There was also a strong link between exposure and cancer.

The worst-hit areas were in south-east Asia, but in total 3.3-million people died from indoor air pollution while 2.6-million died from outdoor air pollution. The indoor deaths were due to people cooking over coal, wood and biomass stoves. Around half of the world's population – 2.9-billion people – use these as their primary means of energy and cooking.

Outdoor pollution comes from sources such as industry, with excessive air pollution resulting from "unsustainable policies" by governments. The policies meant transport, energy production, waste management and industry were leading to deaths, the report said. "Healthier strategies will be more economical in the long term due to healthcare cost savings as well as climate gains." 

"The risks from air pollution are now far greater than previously thought or understood, particularly for heart diseases and strokes," said Dr Maria Neira, the organisation's director of pubic health, environmental and social determinants to health.

"Fewer risks have a greater impact on global health today than air pollution. The evidence signals the need for concerted action to clean the air we all breathe."

Last year the health organisation classified air pollution as a carcinogenic. This was because there was "sufficient evidence" that outdoor air pollution caused cancer, with a particular problem in rapidly industrialising countries. 

Dr Flavia Bustreo, the organisation's assistant director general of family, women and children's health, said: "Cleaning up the air we breathe prevents non-communicable diseases as well as reduces disease risks among women and vulnerable groups, including children and the elderly."

Poor women and children in particular have paid a heavy price because they spend so much time in the home.

The health organisation used satellite data, ground-level monitoring and data from key pollution sources to model how pollution moves across communities. It then linked this with mortality data.

In northern China, the government announced that air pollution had cut life expectancy by 5.5 years, as a result of what has been dubbed an "airpocalypse".

South Africa's environment department recently passed the Air Quality Act, which attempts to enforce the maximum levels of particles that industry can release. In many cases companies readily exceed the limits, although the fine for doing so can be as high as R5-million or five years in jail. 

Eskom recently asked that 16 of its power stations be given more time to comply with the Act, which requires the parastatal to be legal by April 1 2015. By 2020 its fleet will have to meet stringent maximums for air pollution. But Eskom has also asked that Medupi – one of the world's largest coal power stations and its newest plant – be given until 2027 to comply.

In its application, Eskom said: "It is not practically feasible or beneficial to South Africa to fully comply with the minimal emission standards."

Research by Greenpeace International concluded that air pollution from Eskom's fleet leads to up to 2 700 deaths a year because of the gases released by its plants – like mercury and sulphur dioxide. No other substantial and independent research has quantified the scale of the air pollution from Eskom and other big industrial polluters.

Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.

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