More than half of the deaths were in India and China, and researchers compared air pollution problem to the conditions under centuries of industrial revolution
Air pollution caused more than 5.5 million people to die prematurely in 2013, according to research presented on Friday, with more than half of those deaths in India and China and illnesses in those countries almost certain to rise.
According to scientists from the US, Canada, China and India, who presented their findings at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington DC, conditions caused by air pollution killed 1.6 million people in China and 1.4 million people in India in 2013.
“Air pollution is the fourth-highest risk factor for death globally and by far the leading environmental risk factor for disease,” said Michael Brauer, a researcher from the University of British Columbia.
Brauer said air pollution contributed to heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, bronchitis, emphysema and acute infections.
He and his colleagues compared the problem in Asia to the conditions under centuries of industrial revolution in the US and Europe: massive economic growth smothered by clouds of toxic matter in the air.
Coal pollution alone killed 366,000 people in China in 2013, according to researcher Qiao Ma. She said coal burned for electricity was the largest polluter in the country, and that China’s new targets to reduce emissions, agreed at the Paris climate talks last year, do not go far enough.
“Even in the most clean scenario in 2030,” Ma said, China’s growing and ageing population will still suffer 990,000 to 1.3 million deaths a year. Beijing, the city of her base at Tsinghua University, had its first “red alerts” for smog last year. By a separate study’s count, air pollution kills thousands every day.
“We think that more aggressive policies are urgently needed,” Ma said.
Researcher Chanda Venkataraman attributed the India’s high air pollution to coal, wood and dung fires, which send enormous amounts of ash and toxic particles into the homes of poor families.
About 920,000 deaths there were attributed to outdoor pollution, such as the particulate matter spread by power plants and vehicle emissions. About 590,000 deaths were attributed to household pollution: the emissions from burning for heating and cooking.
Venkataraman, a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, said India needed to confront all three sources: industrial coal, agricultural fires and household pollution.
The researchers hailed lawmakers in the US, Canada, western Europe and Japan – or at least their predecessors, whom were credited with major accomplishments in curbing pollution over the past 50 years.
“We actually know the way to solve this problem,” Bauer said.
Dan Greenbaum, the former head of Massachusetts’ department of environmental protection, said in a statement: “Having been in charge of designing and implementing strategies to improve air in the United States, I know how difficult it is.
“This research helps guide the way by identifying the actions which can best improve public health.”
The US supreme court halted the most recent attempt to curb carbon emissions in the US, this week ordering the EPA not to enact Barack Obama’s sweeping new rules for coal-fired power plants, at least until its justices decide the rules’ legality.
The setback has raised fears about whether countries who agreed to the Paris accord will back out, but the Obama administration has insisted the decision will not affect the deal.