Are deaths by air pollution rising globally?

Air pollution is a silent but deadly killer.

Around 70-75% of the global population breathes dangerously polluted air above the annual limit of 10 μg/m3 recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).

And in 2017, a highly publicized Lancet commission on pollution and health painted a vivid portrait of global air quality.

According to the report, air pollution is one of the world’s most dangerous killers. Nearly 7 million early deaths per year are linked to air pollution alone.1

But increasing research shows that previous estimates of numbers of deaths linked to air pollution may be understated.

A groundbreaking 2018 study from Health Canada used a novel data collection method called the Global Exposure Mortality Model (GEMM) to estimate that up to 8.8 million people may die every year from causes linked to particulate matter pollution.2

A groundbreaking 2018 study estimated that up to 8.8 million people die each year from air pollution.

This study also noted that up to 2.4 million of these deaths were specifically attributable to cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks, strokes, and heart failure, concluding that air pollution was a leading cause of death worldwide.

In 2019, two alarming studies corroborated this estimate of deaths by air pollution.

A study in the European Heart Journal used the GEMM method to confirm the Canadian team’s figure of 8.8 million deaths, further breaking down their data to show that Europe bore the brunt of air pollution-related deaths.3

According to researchers, 269,000 out of the 2.4 million deaths caused by air pollution-related heart disease were documented in Europe alone.

Another study, this time from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), found that, even though air pollution levels in the United States dropped nearly 25% from 2009 to 2016, they rose again by over 5% between 2016 and 2018.4


This sudden increase from 2016 to 2018 is no accident. Much of this increase can be attributed to the change in presidential administrations in early 2017.

The Trump administration frequently claimed that it “made it a top priority to ensure America” has the cleanest air and water. However, his administration, including leadership at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), was nonetheless responsible for frequent attempts to loosen pollution guidelines.

According to the official EPA Air Quality Index, the number of official Unhealthy Air Days during the Trump presidency increased in America.5

For context, the category of “Unhealthy Air Days” refers to days where the outdoor air quality is so poor that children, the elderly, and those with existing lung conditions are at much higher risk for exacerbated symptoms and premature deaths.

The Trump administration also authorized rollbacks on environmental protections established during the Obama administration, such as freezing vehicle emission standards and pulling out of the international Paris Agreement.6,7

As a result, the U.S. had the seventh-highest number of pollution-related deaths in the world as of 2019.8

The U.S. had the 7th-highest number of air pollution deaths in the world as of 2019.

The Global Alliance on Health and Pollution estimates that 196,930 Americans lost their lives prematurely due to pollution in 2017 alone, over half of which were caused by outdoor air pollution.

What are the biggest sources of air pollution?

There are three main types of air pollution:

  • Indoor air pollution: This type of pollution can stem from indoor cooking, cleaning chemicals and even poor ventilation while using heating or air conditioning.9
  • Ambient fine-particulate pollution (PM2.5): PM2.5 particles come from many sources, including vehicle exhaust and factory emissions. They can get into your bloodstream and cause heart and lung conditions.10
  • Tropospheric (ground-level) ozone: This dangerous type of ozone forms when heat interacts with chemicals in the lower atmosphere. It can trigger asthma symptoms and even permanently harm your lungs.11

Relative wealth and poverty influence the sources of pollution in a community and how acutely they harm those communities.

Developed countries face dangerous pollution from industrialization. But many of these nations have the resources to make policy changes that improve air quality.

For example, the 1970 Clean Air Act in the United States helped decrease air pollution by 70% in a matter of decades.12

Wealth and poverty influence the sources of pollution in a community and how acutely they harm those communities.

But 92% of the worldwide air pollution-related deaths happen in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).

These countries have far fewer resources to combat air pollution. Pollution-related human health impacts and increased death rates are also common among minority groups more likely to live in or near poor and polluted areas.13,14,15

Pollution linked to poverty

Poor and developing areas suffer the worst air pollution.16

Nearly 3 billion people still rely on biomass fuels for light, heat, and cooking. These fuels, which include firewood and animal dung, are crucial for survival where electricity, gas, and oil aren’t available.

But biomass fuels contain dangerous particles and chemicals like sulfur and nitrogen and quickly build up indoors. This can cause damage to your lungs, trigger asthma and cause life-threatening breathing problems.

Many communities are also exposed to other dangerous pollutants:

  • Coal facilities near indigenous Adivasi communities in India have caused millions to leave their homes due to deadly pollution generated by power plants and coal burning.
  • Lead, zinc, and coal mines near villages in South Africa and Peru cause lung conditions like silicosis because of airborne particles produced by mining.
  • Oil and gas production near poor communities in Latin America have led to large-scale pollution in areas that don’t have the resources to regulate corporations or clean pollution left behind by production activities.
  • Electronic waste (E-waste) recycling creates toxic fumes from the burning of electronics for their raw minerals. Nearly 50 million tons of e-waste was generated in 2019.17 Many communities rely on these e-waste facilities for jobs and income, trapping them in a cycle of poverty and pollution.

Pollution linked to industrial development

Many industrialized regions aren’t as exposed to solid fuels and mining as poorer, developing regions are. But other types of pollutants have become rampant, including:

  • Ambient air pollution from vehicle exhaust, industrial emissions, and electricity production18
  • Chemical pollution from agricultural pesticides and herbicides (also called “weed killers”)19

Ambient air pollution, especially PM2.5 and ground-level ozone, has been linked to:

  • asthma
  • diabetes
  • birth defects
  • ADHD
  • autism
  • dementia
  • heart disease
  • COPD
  • cancer

Increasing concentrations of chemical pollution have been linked to endocrine disruption, which stunts growth and can cause cancer.

In developed countries, a majority of industrial air pollution is caused by just a small percentage of companies with gigantic carbon footprints.

A 2017 study by the non-profit CDP in partnership with the Climate Accountability Institute found that 70% of the world’s air pollution came from 100 companies who alone produced 923 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, including:20

  • energy companies that constantly burn fossil fuels, such as coal, to generate power, including investor-owned corporate giants like Saudi Aramco and Gazprom worth billions of dollars
  • car manufacturers with large-scale production of vehicles
  • massive factories and production facilities that require enormous amounts of power to operate

70% of the world’s air pollution comes from just 100 companies.

Some cities in industrialized countries bear the worst of this pollution.

Mira Loma Village, a California city 50 miles east of Los Angeles, is surrounded by factory smoke, heavy vehicle traffic, and pollutants blown in from the coast and trapped by the surrounding San Gabriel mountains.

Children and adults living in this region of Southern California, known as the Inland Empire, experience lower lung capacity and higher rates of asthma and lung cancer.

The city of Bakersfield, located in California’s Central Valley, also faces pollution from pesticides, fertilizer, and several busy highways within the city limits.

Located in the center of California’s enormous agricultural industry, Bakersfield and other Central Valley cities, such as Fresno and Visalia, regularly outrank even notoriously polluted cities like Los Angeles, New York City and Beijing on lists of the world’s dirtiest cities.

What’s next for global air pollution?

Global deaths from air pollution will rise if nothing changes. Deaths could increase over 50% by 2050 due to PM2.5 pollution alone. Cities suffering from new, deadly combinations of air pollution regularly appear in the news.

In 2017, the Indian city of Delhi was named the most polluted city on Earth by numerous publications due to extreme levels of PM2.5.

Much of this pollution was caused by a mixture of pollution from sources old and new – smog from millions of cars, factories and construction sites coupled with large-scale biomass fuel burning in the surrounding regions.21

Global deaths from air pollution will rise if nothing changes. Deaths could increase over 50% by 2050 due to PM2.5 pollution alone.

In the same year, the city of Lahore in Pakistan experienced a similar pollution crisis.

Massive amounts of biofuel smoke and largely unregulated factory emissions regularly result in smog so thick and toxic that it’s called a “fifth season.”

A 2015 report by the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that air pollution killed 60,000 residents of Lahore that year, and pollution concentrations have only risen since.22

But it’s not all bad news.

The Supreme Court of India has passed laws to protect Adivasi communities from polluted air caused by mining.23,24

The Gyapa Stoves project has also addressed coal and biomass pollution in Accra, Ghana. Since 2008, this project has improved local air quality by nearly 50%.

And in 2020, COVID-19 ground global economies to a halt, creating a massive experiment in the possibilities of fighting air pollution.

Using AirVisual data from over 80,000 sensors, the IQAir COVID-19 Air Quality Report found that shutdowns resulting from the pandemic reduced air pollution in major cities like Delhi, Seoul, and Los Angeles by up to 60%.

This extreme reduction in air pollution was attributed to a huge drop in vehicle traffic, thousands of grounded flights, and reduced production capacities at factories, all of which are major contributors to global air pollution.

Though the reduction in global air pollution didn’t last long, this brief period of improved air quality shows what’s possible if sources of air pollution are reduced or replaced by cleaner technologies like wind and solar power.

What can I do to help?

Even small, gradual changes in your daily life can save millions of lives as you take part in the global movement to clean our air.

  • Make changes to your commute. Getting around town can be difficult without a car. But if you can, use alternative commuting options to limit the time you spend in your car.
    • Carpool with friends, classmates or coworkers to reduce the number of cars on the road.
    • Use public transportation, such as the bus or train, a few times a week to help lower levels of vehicle emissions significantly.
    • Walk or bike to work to reduce not only vehicle emissions but also your risk of developing conditions like asthma, diabetes, and heart disease.25,26
    • Consider buying a hybrid or electric vehicle. These vehicles use gasoline fuel efficiently or not at all, greatly reducing emissions from combustion engine exhaust.27
  • Avoid burning solid fuels. Try alternatives to biomass fuels. For example, use a pellet stove or coconut shell charcoal, which releases fewer toxic pollutants.28
  • Use an exhaust hood when cooking. A stove hood that covers the entire cooking surface can limit indoor air pollution from smoke and gases.
  • Use green cleaning chemicals. Avoid cleaners that contain toxic chemicals like formaldehyde.
  • Protect yourself with a high-performance air purifier.
  • The IQAir HealthPro Plus filters 99.97% of even the smallest ultrafine particles, such as those from vehicles and nearby factory exhaust, from your indoor air.
  • The Atem Desk personal air purifier filters 99.5% of particles down to 0.003 microns from your personal breathing zone. With the Atem, you can breathe virtually pure air even when you’re surrounded by polluted air.
  • Monitor your local air quality. Use an air quality monitor to keep track of your local air quality. AirVisual displays 72-hour historical and forecast data so that you can know when and why your air quality changes. Air quality data can help keep local polluters accountable by showing details of pollution’s health effects and impacts on local air quality.
  • Get involved. Become familiar with local environmental justice groups and policymakers and how they represent your community’s air quality interests. Simply showing up at regular city council meetings can help you get in tune with your community air quality issues.

There’s a lot of work to be done, and the cost of air pollution is high: in the world’s top five most populous cities, air pollution killed 98,300 people and cost $56.5 billion USD in the first half of 2020 alone in lives and economic activity lost.

But around the world, communities are already experiencing the benefits of increased awareness and action about air pollution.

You can start helping today. All you have to do is look around and begin to understand where your community fits into the portrait of global air pollution.

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