New Research Predicts That Improving Air Quality Would Cause a Striking Decrease in the Number of Deaths Worldwide

Outdoor air pollution causes more deaths than HIV/AIDS and malaria combined. Recent research shows that improving air quality in clean places such as the US, Canada, and Europe could prevent more than 500,000 deaths a year, while improving air quality globally could prevent 2.1 million deaths a year.

Research published by Apte et al. in Environmental Science & Technology in June 2015 described a global model to determine how changes in outdoor air pollution would affect the rates of health problems like heart attacks, strokes, and lung cancer.

A team of public health and environmental engineering researchers examined the effect of particulate matter (PM) smaller than 2.5 microns. Sources of this air pollution include vehicles, coal power plants, fires, and agricultural and industrial emissions. The researchers expected to find a significant decrease in the number of deaths in countries with major air pollution problems such as China and India.

Some parts of these countries have PM levels more than 10-times higher than that recommended by the World Health Organization. That would suggest that improving air quality in countries such as these would have the greatest impact on reducing premature deaths. However, the researchers were surprised to find that their results suggested that improving air quality in first world countries could also prevent a great number of deaths. The research indicates that just meeting EPA standards doesn’t fully address the impact of outdoor air pollution on health in the US.

Another important finding is that the health risks from air pollution will increase in many countries even if pollution levels stay constant. Aging populations are more susceptible to health problem associated with air pollution, and have an elevated risk of heart attack and stroke when breathing polluted air.

This new research will help global public policy experts set appropriate guidelines for reducing air pollution and should lead to significant improvements in public health over the long-term.