Air pollution killed 7 million in 2012, says WHO

Revised estimates double number of deaths attributed to air pollution

By Vibha Varshney
Published: Tuesday 25 March 2014


Air pollution is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk. A new estimate by the World Health Organization (WHO) says that in 2012, around seven million people died due to exposure to air pollution. This means that one in eight of total global deaths were because of air pollution. This is double the number of deaths currently attributed to air pollution.

Air pollution increases deaths due to strokes, ischaemic heart disease and cancer and has a role in the development of respiratory diseases like acute respiratory infections and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases. Low- and middle-income countries in the WHO South-East Asia Region and Western Pacific Region had the largest air pollution-related burden in 2012. A total of 3.3 million deaths linked to indoor air pollution and 2.6 million deaths related to outdoor air pollution occurred in these areas.

“Few risks have a greater impact on global health today than air pollution; the evidence signals the need for concerted action to clean up the air we all breathe,” says Maria Neira, director of WHO’s Department for Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health. WHO hopes that the data would help in the implementation of a roadmap developed by it for preventing diseases related to air pollution.

“Excessive air pollution is often a by-product of unsustainable policies in sectors such as transport, energy, waste management and industry. In most cases, healthier strategies will also be more economical in the long term due to health-care cost savings as well as climate gains,” says Carlos Dora, WHO Coordinator for Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health. “WHO and health sectors have a unique role in translating scientific evidence on air pollution into policies that can deliver impact and improvements that will save lives.”

The new estimates are based on a better understanding of diseases caused by air pollution and improved technology to assess human exposure to air pollutants. Estimates of people’s exposure to outdoor air pollution in different parts of the world were found through global data mapping, based on satellite data, ground-level monitoring measurements and data on pollution emissions from key sources, as well as modelling of how pollutants drift in the air.
Outdoor air pollution-caused deaths—breakdown by disease:

  • 40% - ischaemic heart disease
  • 40% - stroke
  • 11% - chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • 6% - lung cancer
  • 3% - acute lower respiratory infections in children


    Indoor air pollution-caused deaths—breakdown by disease:
  • 34% - stroke
  • 26% - ischaemic heart disease
  • 22% - COPD
  • 12% - acute lower respiratory infections in children
  • 6% - lung cancer

Burden of disease from household and ambient air pollution for 2012

Outdoor air pollution a leading environmental cause of cancer deaths: IARC, WHO

Burden of disease: outdoor air pollution among top killers

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