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10 Facts About Air Pollution That’ll Take Your Breath Away

CRISIS - Atmospheric CO2 Levels CRISIS - Pollution Crises by Olivia Lai Global Commons Dec 1st 20236 mins
10 Facts About Air Pollution That’ll Take Your Breath Away

Air pollution is one of the most dire environmental problems in the world right now. Constant exposure to it poses incredibly high risks of health issues and premature deaths to the world’s population. We believe the first step in tackling a problem is to have knowledge of the issue at hand. So here are 10 breathtaking facts about air pollution. 

10 Facts About Air Pollution

1. Less than 1% of global land area has safe air pollution levels

According to a 2023 study, just about 30% of days in 2019 had daily concentrations of PM2.5 lower than 15 μg/m3. Moreover, researchers found that about 0.18% of the global land area and only 0.001% of the world’s population had an annual exposure to PM2.5 below the safe threshold of 5 μg/m3https://earth.org/air-pollution-levels-study/.

Eastern and Southern Asia were the regions with the highest air pollution levels, followed by Northern Africa. At the other side of the spectrum are Australia and New Zealand, followed by other regions in Oceania and South America. Here, PM2.5 concentrations are the lowest, though they experienced an increase in air pollution levels over the past two decades, driven partly by intensified and prolonged wildfire seasons. Stricter regulations led instead to a decrease in pollutants in Europe and North America over the same period.

2. At least 1 in 10 people die from air pollution-related diseases

One of the most stunning facts about air pollution is that it is a leading risk factor for chronic health diseases and premature death in the world. In 2017, air pollution was responsible for an estimated 5 million deaths globally, amounting to nearly 9% of the world’s population. Constant exposure to polluted air increases the risk of coronary and respiratory disease, stroke, diabetes and lung cancer. South East Asian countries tend to suffer the brunt of the impacts from outdoor air pollution. Air pollution-related deaths in the region accounted for 15% of deaths globally while rich nations contributed only to 2%, according to data in 2017, demonstrating a glaring disparity between developed and developing countries. 

You might also like: Half of 500,000 Air Pollution-Related Deaths in EU in 2021 Could Have Been Avoided, Study Shows

3. Air pollution is a greater threat to life expectancy than smoking, HIV or war

Air pollution is literally cutting years from the lives of billions of people around the world. According to a 2021 report by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, residents in India, which is home to the highest levels of air pollution on the planet, lose an average of 5.9 years from their lives as a result of poor air quality. Though all top five countries with the worst air pollution are located in Asia, air pollution is a rapidly rising threat in Central and West Africa, where average life expectancy has dropped by two to five years, making it a larger threat to human health than “well-known killers like HIV/AIDS and malaria.”

4. Air pollution has a nearly $3 trillion economic cost, equivalent to 3.3% of the world’s GDP

A report released in 2020 by Greenpeace Southeast Asia and the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air revealed the human and economic costs of air pollution from fossil fuels. Air pollution-related deaths are estimated to have a $2.9 trillion economic cost, and was responsible for 1.8 billion days of work absence – lowering participation rates in labour forces – 4 million new cases of child asthma, which causes children to miss more school, increasing healthcare needs and impacting guardians time away from their work, as well as 2 million preterm births in 2018. The report also points out disability from chronic diseases caused by poor air quality cost the world’s economy $200 billion, with sick leave and preterm births costing $100 billion and $90 billion respectively.

5. Death rates from air pollution are highest in low-to-middle income countries

One of the most distressing facts about air pollution is that people living in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia regions are significantly more likely to die from outdoor air pollution than those residing in Europe and North America, where death rates are 100 times greater. Indoor air pollution rates, which refers to the air quality within and around buildings and structure, are similarly higher in lower-income nations due to a reliance on solid fuels such as wood, crop wastes, charcoal and coal, as well as kerosene in open fires, for cooking. About 2.6 billion people in the world continue to rely on this cooking method and are vulnerable to illnesses caused by indoor air pollution. 

You might also like: Air Pollution in South Asia Cuts Life Expectancy By 5 Years on Average: Report

6. Climate change increases risks of wildfires and air pollution from it

Extreme weather events and wildfires have become more frequent and intense as a result of climate change. As drought seasons become more prolonged, as well as growing deforestation rates to make way for agriculture development, so do the risks of wildfires. Large-scale wildfires release carbon emissions, smog and pollutants into the air, which can spread across countries and regions. In July 2021, unprecedented heatwave and wildfires in the western regions of the US and Canada caused cities on the East Coast including New York to be shrouded in smoke and polluted air. Similarly, Siberia experienced one of the worst wildfires during the same period where smog reached to dangerously high levels, forcing more than 280,000 residents to remain at home. 

7. 6 of the world’s 10 most polluted cities in 2022 were in India

According to IQAir’s 2022 World Air Quality Report, the majority of the world’s most polluted cities are in Asia, particularly India and Pakistan. While Indian cities – including New Delhi, Patna, Peshawar, and Asopur – top the world’s most polluted cities’ list, India does not place among the five most polluted countries globally. The latter are topped by nations much smaller in geographical area, which brings up the annual average PM2.5 concentration (μg/m³). According to IQAir, the top-5 countries for air pollution are Chad, Iraq, Pakistan, Bahrain, and Bangladesh.

More on the topic: Mapping the Most Polluted Cities in the World in 2023

8. Particulate Pollution in China Dropped by 29% Within 6 Years

Despite China being the world’s largest carbon emitter and the country with the worst air pollution on the planet (with 2013 reaching its highest pollution level) where 1.25 million Chinese residents die early each year from air pollution, studies have shown the nation to have made major progress in reducing air pollution thanks to strict policy action. Within six years, particulate pollution has declined by 29% and dropped below 1990 levels. 

China has also invested more in solar energy than any other nation, representing 45% of all global investment in solar and is expected to generate twice as much power from solar as the US by 2024.  However, currently,  98% of the nation’s urban areas still exceed WHO guidelines and 53% exceed China’s own less stringent national standards. 

9. None of the World’s 100 Biggest Cities Are Able to Meet WHO’s Updated Guidelines

One of more recent facts about air pollution: the WHO issued new stringent guidelines on air pollution in September 2021, following new research showing fine particulate matter to be more harmful than previously thought where an estimated 8.7 million people a year die early due to breathing air from coal, oil and gas burning. This accounts for 20% of global deaths. To push countries to ramp up efforts to improve air quality, WHO’s new acceptable limit for PM2.5 has been slashed by half while nitrogen dioxide (NO2), produced mainly from diesel engines, is lowered by 75%. Based on these new guidelines, no major city is able to meet it according to an analysis by Greenpeace. The WHO says that if the world collectively reduced its air pollution levels to within the new limits, nearly 80% of air pollution-related deaths could be prevented. 

10. Air Pollution Contributed to the Spread of COVID-19

A recent preliminary study from Harvard University found a positive correlation between COVID-19-related mortalities and air pollution, adding that there is a plausible association of airborne particles assisting the viral spread. Based on studies observing COVID-19 related deaths and air pollution – noting that Northern Italy is one of the most polluted areas in Europe – the investigation discovered even a small increase of 1 μg/m3 in PM2.5 levels was associated with an 8% increase in COVID-19-related fatality.

You might also like: What are the Biggest Causes and Effects of Air Pollution?

Tagged: Air pollution

About the Author

Olivia Lai

Olivia is a journalist and editor based in Hong Kong with previous experience covering politics, art and culture. She is passionate about wildlife and ocean conservation, with a keen interest in climate diplomacy. She’s also a graduate of University of Edinburgh in International Relations with a Master’s degree from The University of Hong Kong in Journalism. Olivia was the former Managing Editor at Earth.Org.

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