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Pollution killed 9 million people worldwide in 2019 alone

Pollution accounted for one in six deaths three years ago, a figure that is unchanged since the last analysis in 2015

Health 17 May 2022

A stock image of smoke and steam being emitted from an industrial plant

A stock image of smoke and steam being emitted from an industrial plant

Ian McKinnell / Alamy

Pollution killed 9 million people globally in 2019, accounting for one in six deaths, an analysis suggests.

Rich Fuller at the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution in Switzerland and his colleagues first assessed the impact of pollution on premature deaths in 2015, similarly finding it caused 9 million fatalities.

To uncover how pollution-related deaths may have changed, the team repeated the analysis, using data from the ongoing Global Burden of Diseases Study.

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“The thing with pollution is that no one actually dies from pollution directly,” says Fuller. “They die because pollution gives them a disease that then kills them.”

The overall number of pollution deaths is unchanged from 2015. However, fatalities caused by household air pollution specifically, for example heating wood indoors, fell from 2.9 million in 2015 to 2.3 million in 2019 as many countries switched to cleaner fuels.

Deaths due to outdoor air pollution, however, rose from 4.2 million to 4.5 million. This is due to increasing numbers of cars and factories, says Fuller. Burning fossil fuels releases fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, with a maximum diameter of 2.5 micrometres. This can go deep into our bodies, and has been linked to heart disease and some cancers.

Lead pollution is also rising globally, although why is unclear. In 2015, the researchers estimated lead caused 500,000 deaths, a figure that is now thought to be at least 900,000.

Overall, more than 90 per cent of pollution-related deaths occur in low and middle-income countries, according to the team. “Much of the pollution comes from the rapid industrialisation of many of these countries,” says Fuller.

The latest analysis is based on data from before the covid-19 pandemic. In the UK, lockdowns temporarily led to fewer vehicles on roads, easing symptoms for people with conditions like asthma. The pandemic’s effect on future pollution analyses is unclear, says Fuller. “I know that air pollution went down during the pandemic but it’s back up again now,” he says.

Fuller hopes the results will led to better pollution monitoring and awareness. “Pollution is one of the three major global issues of our time,” he says. “It is climate change, a loss of biodiversity and pollution.”

“The number of global early deaths from exposure to pollution doesn’t surprise me,” says Eloise Marais at University College London. “What’s most concerning is the lack of adoption of measures to address the issue”.

Journal reference: The Lancet Planetary Health, DOI: 10.1016/S2542-5196(22)00090-0

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