Each year, 3 million people die prematurely from HIV and malaria. Each year, more than 3 million people die prematurely because of air pollution.
Air quality is central to health and well-being. Most air pollution deaths are caused by tiny particles that can be inhaled deep into the lungs. Professor Michael Jerrett, at the University of California, has evaluated that three-quarters of the 3.3 million annual deaths result from heart attacks and strokes, with lung cancer and respiratory diseases responsible for the rest. Jarrett’s study, published in the journal Nature, has estimated that indoor air pollution (e.g. from cooking fires) causes an additional 3.4 million deaths a year. This is the first study to single out different outdoor air pollution sources and estimate the number of subsequent premature deaths, due to road traffic, fossil fuel power stations, etc.
The researchers used a detailed computer model of the global atmosphere to assess the impact of air pollution on different populations, including new information on how pollution affects people in China and India. A third of all premature deaths were the result of using smoky fuels such as wood and coal for heating homes or cooking and using dirty diesel generators for electricity, all well-known hazards. This domestic energy use causes half the 645,000 annual deaths in India and a third of the 1.4 million annual deaths in China.
Parallel researches have been also led by Professor Jos Lelieveld, at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany. His team focused on agricultural emissions of ammonia, that had a “remarkable” impact: a fifth of all global deaths resulted from these emissions, which come mainly from cattle, chickens and pigs and from the over-use of fertiliser. The ammonia reacts with fumes from traffic and industry to produce tiny particles and is the largest cause of air pollution deaths in the eastern US, Japan and in Europe. It seems that 48% of premature deaths in the UK derive from agricultural pollution.
Traffic pollution was still important in developed countries, causing a fifth of deaths, despite crackdowns on dirty vehicles. It only caused 5% of deaths across the globe as a whole, but this is likely to rise as more cars take to the road in developing countries.Air pollution from power stations, mainly coal-burning plants, was significant globally, causing one in seven deaths. It is the biggest single factor in the US, causing a third of the 55,000 annual deaths, compared to 16% in the UK.
Natural air pollution, mostly dust in arid regions, caused almost a fifth of global air pollution deaths. This source is a major factor in some dry countries, accounting for 92% of deaths in Egypt and 81% in Iran.
“The overlap of high pollution and large populations takes a huge toll on public health, but little [was] known about the pollution sources that are responsible for premature deaths,” said Jerrett. “The results are surprising and potentially important for protecting public health globally.”
Since the 1970s, the European Union and its Member Countries have introduced laws to ensure the careful use of natural resources, to minimise adverse environmental impacts of production and consumption, and to protect biodiversity and natural habitats. Based on Title XX of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, EU environment law covers aspects as wide-ranging as waste management, air and water quality, greenhouse gases and toxic chemicals. In addition, the EU integrates environmental concerns in its other policies, e.g. transport and energy, and is a major global force in pushing for tighter environmental standards and for effective action against climate change. The Commission has adopted a Clean Air Policy Package in December 2013, consisting of a new Clean Air Programme for Europe with new air quality objectives for the period up to 2030, a revised National Emission Ceilings Directive with stricter national emission ceilings for the six main pollutants, and a proposal for a new Directive to reduce pollution from medium-sized combustion installations.
“The clean air policy package updates existing legislation and further reduces harmful emissions from industry, traffic, energy plants and agriculture, with a view to reduce their impact on human health and the environment. Air pollution causes also lost working days, and high healthcare costs, with vulnerable groups such as children, asthmatics and the elderly the worst affected. It also damages ecosystems through excess nitrogen pollution (eutrophication) and acid rain. The direct costs to society from air pollution, including damage to crops and buildings, amount to about €23 billion per year. The benefits to people’s health from implementing the package are around €40 billion a year, over 12 times the costs of pollution abatement, which are estimated to reach € 3.4 billion per year in 2030”.
The Commission estimates that its measure will save €40-140 billion in external costs in terms of health care and provide about €3 billion in direct benefits due to higher productivity of the workforce, lower healthcare costs, higher crop yields and less damage to buildings. The proposal will also add the equivalent of around 100 000 additional jobs due to increased productivity and competitiveness because of fewer workdays lost. It is estimated to have a positive net impact on economic growth.
We hope the EU policies will be effective and the estimation on the positive effects is grounded on solid research.