Outdoor air pollution is estimated to be linked to 3 million deaths world wide per year. Including indoor sources into the estimate we find that around 6 million deaths world wide are attributed to air pollution. That is 11.6% of all global deaths! Most of these deaths come from complications with the heart, lungs, or brain. Diseases that have been associated with pollution exposure include: stroke, heart disease, COPD, asthma, cancer, and impaired mental cognition. The exhaust from cars that burn fossil fuels is not the only contributor to rising pollution levels; exhaust from airplanes, power plants, manufacturing, and farming in addition to pollution from landfills, paint and hair spray, dust, cigarette smoke, indoor wood stoves, and controlled burns all contribute to raising the level of pollution in the air we breath. Indoor and outdoor pollution contains numerous components that are known to harmful at elevated levels but the one component that is becoming increasingly worrisome is particulate matter. Particulate matter are very small, smaller than the 1/5th width of a hair, and can be made up of metals, dust, or other solid components. These little particles get inhaled and get trapped in your lungs; some evidence even suggests they can be absorbed into the blood stream. Once there, they trigger your immune system that, in the process of clearing them, can damage the surrounding tissue leading to disease. There are two sizes of particulate matter that are thought to be most problematic for human health, PM2.5 and PM10, 2.5 microns and 10 microns in size respectively. Much research has pointed to both sizes being linked to a number of health complications.
The WHO is constantly monitoring the growing global pollution problem. They have set maximum limits that are deemed acceptable for human health. These numbers tell us about the average density of the particulate matter in the air over the course of a year or a day. Any lengthy exposure above these levels are associated with significant health concerns. A recent report by the WHO updates the global pollution picture and indicates that 92% of all the worlds population is now living in areas that have higher than acceptable levels of air pollution (particulate matter), indoor and/or outdoor.
The regions of the world with the worst pollution are currently: Eastern Mediterranean (in both high and low income regions), South-East Asia, Western Pacific, and Africa. These regions all greatly exceed the WHO limit of 10ug/m3 for PM2.5 exposure. Terrifyingly, the only region in the world that has a majority of their population being exposed to acceptable levels of particulate matter is the high income regions of the Americas (76% exposed below the WHO guideline). Compare this to South-East Asia, Africa, Low income Europe, Low income Western Pacific, and Eastern Mediterranean where 98% of the population is living in conditions with pollution exposures that are unacceptable by WHO standards. In addition, the South-East Asia, Eastern Mediterranean (High and Low income), and Western Pacific (Low income) all had increasing levels of pollution in the last 5 years.
The report also shows that strokes and heart attacks were the two most common causes of death related to pollution exposure, especially in the low income regions of the Western Pacific and in South-East Asia. Of all the deaths attributed to air pollution, 36% are due to stroke, 36% due to heart attacks, 14% lung cancer, 8% COPD.
We need a strong push to make clean, pollution free air available for all regions of the world, whether high or low income. The fact that most of the populated areas of the world are failing their air pollution test is pitiful. Cleaning up our air will have a profound impact on the health and well being of everyone. The WHO has made available an interactive map so you can check out what the air quality is like in your city, hopefully with awareness can come change.
Image Credit: Flickr Rich Luhr