Did you know that air pollution is one of the most dangerous health risks on the planet?
A recent study by the Max Planck Society predicts air pollution will shorten the lives of people throughout the world by an average of three years, making air pollution more deadly than smoking, violence, and infectious diseases such as malaria and HIV/AIDS.
In 2015, air pollution caused an estimated 8.8 million premature deaths globally. In 2019, the World Health Organization ranked air pollution as #1 on its top 10 threats to global health list.
“Given the huge impact on public health and the global population, one could say that our results indicate an air pollution pandemic,” notes Jos Lelieveld, lead author of the Max Planck study.
“Our comparison of different global risk factors shows that ambient air pollution is a leading cause of premature mortality and loss of life expectancy, in particular through cardiovascular diseases,” adds co-author Thomas Münzel.
According to the WHO, up to 90% of people worldwide breathe in polluted air every day.
When a person breathes in polluted air, they are also breathing in microscopic particles of dirt, smoke, metals, vehicle exhaust, liquid, and chemicals.
When these particles (known as ‘particulate matter’) enter the respiratory and circulatory systems, they cause damage to the lungs, heart, and brain that can lead to cancer, stroke, and heart and lung disease.
Complications from breathing polluted air are believed to cause up to 7 million premature deaths each year, with the most affected populations living in East and South Asia.
“We understand more and more that fine particles primarily favor vascular damage and thus diseases such as heart attack, stroke, cardiac arrhythmia, and heart failure. It is of utmost importance that air pollution is adopted as a cardiovascular risk factor,” says Münzel.
In the Max Planck study, researchers distinguished between manmade pollution (primarily fossil fuel use) and pollution from natural sources such as wildfires. Based on their research, roughly 5.5 million deaths each year are caused by manmade pollution and are, in theory, avoidable.
Based on particulate matter concentration, a majority of the world’s most polluted cities are located in India and China. For people living in these cities, it’s normal to put on a face mask when leaving the house. During especially severe periods, officials warn residents to avoid walking outside early in the morning and late in the evening.
For me, living in Central Florida, this lifestyle is hard to comprehend.
In the United States, 7 of the 10 most polluted cities are in California, with Los Angeles ranked #1. The only metro areas on the list outside California were Houston, New York City, and Phoenix.
“It is important that policy-makers and the medical community realize that air pollution is an important risk factor for heart and blood vessel disease,” reiterates Münzel. “It should be included as a risk factor, along with smoking, diabetes, and high blood pressure and cholesterol, in the guidelines of the European Society of Cardiology and the American Heart Association on the prevention of acute and chronic heart syndromes and heart failure.”
Study results suggest the removal of fossil fuel emissions would push global average life expectancy up by one year.