Air pollution is a bigger killer than previously estimated

A new study has shown that air pollution may be responsible for killing more people than previously thought. The study titled, “Cardiovascular disease burden from ambient air pollution in Europe reassessed using novel hazard ratio functions,” was published in the latest issue of the European Heart Journal and says that air pollution may be killing more people than smoking tobacco.

Car polluting the airToa55 | Shutterstock

According to the study, in 2015, air pollution was responsible for killing 8.8 million more people than expected. It was earlier speculated that air pollution could be responsible for killing around 4.5 million to 6.5 million (in 2015 and 2016 respectively) people across the world. The actual findings are much more and are thus cause for concern.

In Europe alone, air pollution was responsible for 800,000 premature deaths in 2015 and there were 659,000 deaths across the 28 member states of the European Union.

To obtain the results, the team used statistical models that could simulate the effects of the atmospheric interactions with chemicals, traffic and agricultural emissions etc. This was added to the global exposure and death rates across the world from the World Health Organization.

Results revealed that 120 extra deaths were caused each year per 100,000 people of the population due to air pollution. In Europe, the figures are 133, which is more than any other region. In Germany the rate is 154, in Poland 150, in Italy 136, in France 105 and in United Kingdom 90, says the study. The rates were around 200 for Eastern European countries such as Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania and Ukraine.

Air pollution is responsible for double the number of deaths caused by heart disease than lung disease. The team found that air pollution could be the reason behind more number of people suffering from high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, heart attacks, and heart failure.

Co-author of the study, Professor Thomas Munzel from the Department of Cardiology of the University Medical Centre Mainz in Mainz, Germany said that heart disease due to air pollution could be “much higher than expected.” He added, “To put this into perspective, this means that air pollution causes more extra deaths a year than tobacco smoking, which the World Health Organization estimates was responsible for an extra 7.2 million deaths in 2015. Smoking is avoidable but air pollution is not.”

The number of deaths from cardiovascular disease that can be attributed to air pollution is much higher than expected. In Europe alone, the excess number of deaths is nearly 800,000 a year and each of these deaths represents an average reduction in life expectancy of more than two years.”

Professor Thomas Munzel, Co-author

Münzel said particles below the size of 2.5 microns in size (PM2.5) are commonly overlooked. “The EU is lagging a long way behind,” Münzel said. “We as doctors and patients cannot alter the limits for air pollution, so the politicians have to stand up and give us an environment that keeps us safe.”

The team urges countries around the world to sit up and take notice and reduce air pollution by more stringent regulations and move towards alternation clean and renewable energy sources.

Since most air pollutants come from the burning of fossil fuels, we need to switch to other sources of energy urgently. When we use clean, renewable energy, we are not just fulfilling the Paris agreement to mitigate the effects of climate change, we could also reduce air pollution-related death rates by up to 55%.”

Prof Jos Lelieveld, Author


Cardiovascular disease burden from ambient air pollution in Europe reassessed using novel hazard ratio functions. European Heart Journal. 12th March 2019.

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