The economic growth that many nations in Asia and increasingly Africa have experienced over the past couple of decades has transformed hundreds of millions of lives — almost entirely for the better. But there’s a byproduct to that growth, one that’s visible — or sometimes less than visible — in the smoggy, smelly skies above cities like Beijing, New Delhi and Jakarta. Thanks to new cars and power plants, air pollution is bad and getting worse in much of the world, and it’s taking a major toll on global health.
How big? According to a new analysis published in the Lancet, more than 3.2 million people suffered premature deaths from air pollution in 2010, the largest number on record. That’s up from 800,000 in 2000. And it’s a regional problem: 65% of those deaths occurred in Asia, where the air is choked by diesel soot from cars and trucks, as well as the smog from power plants and the dust from endless urban construction. In East Asia and China, 1.2 million people died, as well as another 712,000 in South Asia, including India. For the first time ever, air pollution is on the world’s top-10 list of killers, and it’s moving up the ranks faster than any other factor.