Pollution killed 9 million people worldwide in 2019 alone

Pollution was responsible for one in six deaths three years ago, a figure unchanged since the last analysis in 2015.


May 17, 2022

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 his colleagues first assessed the impact of pollution on premature deaths in 2015, and similarly found that it caused 9 million fatalities.

To find out how the number of deaths from pollution has changed, the team repeated the analysis using data from the ongoing Global Burden of Diseases Study.

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

The total number of deaths from pollution has remained unchanged from 2015, but the number of deaths from air pollution in households, for example heating wood indoors, decreased from 2.9 million in 2015 to 2.3 million in 2019, because many countries switched to cleaner fuels.

However, the number of deaths from outdoor air pollution rose from 4.2 million to 4.5 million. That’s because of the increasing number of cars and factories, Fuller says. When fossil fuels are burned, particulate matter, or PM2.5, is released with a maximum diameter of 2.5 micrometers. This can penetrate deep into our bodies and has been linked to heart disease and some cancers.

Lead pollution is also increasing worldwide, although it is unclear why. In 2015, the researchers estimated that lead caused 500,000 deaths, a figure now estimated at at least 900,000.

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

The latest analysis is based on data from before the Covid-19 pandemic. In the UK, lockdowns temporarily reduced vehicles on the road, alleviating symptoms for those with conditions such as asthma. The effect of the pandemic on future pollution analyzes is unclear, Fuller says. “I know air pollution has decreased during the pandemic, but it’s back now,” he says.

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

“The number of premature deaths worldwide from pollution exposure does not surprise me,” said Eloise Marais of University College London. “Most worrying is the lack of action to address the problem.”

Reference magazine: The Lancet Planetary HealthDOI: 10.116/S2542-5196(22)00090-0

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