Pollution killed 9 million people worldwide in 2019 alone

Pollution accounted for one in six deaths three years ago, a figure that has not changed since the last analysis in 2015


May 17, 2022

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

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

Ian McKinnell / Alamy

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

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

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

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

The total number of deaths from pollution has not changed since 2015, however, deaths caused specifically by household air pollution, 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.

However, deaths due to outdoor air pollution increased from 4.2 million to 4.5 million. This is due to the growing number of cars and factories, says Fuller. The burning of fossil fuels releases fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, with a maximum diameter of 2.5 micrometres. This can get deep into our bodies and has been linked to heart disease and some types of cancer.

Lead contamination is also increasing globally, although it is not clear why. In 2015, researchers estimated that lead caused 500,000 deaths, a figure now believed to be at least 900,000.

Overall, more than 90 percent of pollution-related deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, according to the team. “Much of the pollution is coming from the rapid industrialization of many of these countries,” says Fuller.

The latest analysis is based on data from before the covid-19 pandemic. In the UK, the lockdowns temporarily resulted in fewer vehicles on the roads, easing symptoms for people with conditions such as asthma. The effect of the pandemic on future contamination analyzes is unclear, Fuller says. “I know air pollution went down during the pandemic, but now it’s back up again,” she says.

Fuller hopes the results will lead to better pollution control and awareness. “Pollution is one of the top three global problems of our time,” he says. “It’s climate change, a loss of biodiversity and pollution.”

“The number of premature deaths around the world from pollution exposure doesn’t surprise me,” says Eloise Marais of University College London. “What is most worrying is the lack of action to address the issue.”

Magazine Reference: Planetary Health LancetDOI: 10.1016/S2542-5196(22)00090-0

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