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Over 135 million people died prematurely due to air pollution

Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) air pollution between 1980 and 2020 has been linked to an estimated 135 million premature deaths globally.

This alarming statistic comes from a recent study, highlighting the devastating impact of air pollution on human health.

Published in Environment International, the study led by researchers from Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore, defines premature deaths as those occurring earlier than expected due to preventable or treatable causes such as diseases and environmental factors.

The researchers found that climate variability phenomena like El Niño-Southern Oscillation, Indian Ocean Dipole, and North Atlantic Oscillation significantly worsened the impact of PM2.5 pollution, leading to a 14 percent increase in premature deaths.

Understanding PM2.5 air pollution

PM2.5 refers to particulate matter that measures 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter. These tiny particles float in the air, often invisible to the naked eye. Their small size allows them to penetrate deep into the lungs and even enter the bloodstream, posing significant health risks.

Sources and health impacts

Both natural phenomena and human activities generate PM2.5. Wildfires, dust storms, and volcanic eruptions release these particles naturally.

Human sources include vehicle emissions, industrial processes, power plants, and agricultural practices. The burning of fossil fuels and biomass contributes heavily to PM2.5 levels, especially in urban areas.

Inhaling PM2.5 can cause serious health problems. These particles irritate the eyes, nose, and throat, and can lead to respiratory issues like coughing and shortness of breath.

Long-term exposure increases the risk of lung cancer, heart disease, and other cardiovascular problems. Children, the elderly, and those with pre-existing conditions face higher risks from PM2.5 pollution.

Environmental effects

PM2.5 pollution affects the environment in various ways. These particles reduce visibility, creating haze in cities and scenic areas. They contribute to acid rain formation, harming ecosystems and damaging buildings. PM2.5 also influences climate change by affecting the Earth’s radiation balance.

Air quality monitors measure PM2.5 concentrations in micrograms per cubic meter of air. Many countries have established air quality standards for PM2.5 levels to protect public health. Real-time monitoring and forecasting help inform the public about air quality conditions and potential health risks.

Mitigation strategies

Reducing PM2.5 pollution requires comprehensive action. Governments implement stricter emissions standards for vehicles and industries.

Cities promote clean energy sources and improve public transportation to decrease reliance on fossil fuels.

Individuals can contribute by using energy-efficient appliances, carpooling, and avoiding activities that generate smoke or dust.

Climate patterns and PM2.5 air pollution

Researchers utilized satellite data from NASA, disease statistics from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, and climate pattern information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to understand the link between PM2.5 pollution and mortality rates.

They discovered that during certain climate events, increased temperatures, altered wind patterns, and reduced precipitation led to stagnant air conditions, causing higher concentrations of harmful PM2.5 particles.

The global scope of the study, analyzing over 40 years of data, provided fresh insights into how specific climate patterns affect air pollution in different regions.

The study estimated that a third of the premature deaths were linked to stroke (33.3%), another third to ischemic heart disease (32.7%), with the remaining deaths associated with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lower respiratory infections, and lung cancer.

This comprehensive analysis highlighted the complex relationship between climate and air quality.

Regional impact and health consequences

Asia experienced the highest number of premature deaths due to PM2.5 pollution, with China and India accounting for 49.0 million and 26.1 million deaths, respectively.

Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Japan also reported significant numbers of pollution-attributable premature deaths.

The study found that the simultaneous occurrence of the three major weather phenomena resulted in approximately 7,000 additional global premature deaths annually.

The Indian Ocean Dipole had the most significant impact, followed by the North Atlantic Oscillation and El Niño.

Implications for public health and policy

The researchers emphasize the need for policymakers to prioritize public health when developing air quality strategies.

Instead of solely focusing on pollutant levels, governments should consider the health effects of air pollution, especially during specific weather conditions.

Associate Professor Steve Yim of NTU’s Asian School of the Environment and Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine emphasized the significant impact of climate patterns on air pollution levels.

“Our findings show that changes in climate patterns can make air pollution worse,” Yim stated.

He further explained that climate phenomena like El Niño can exacerbate PM2.5 pollution, potentially leading to increased premature deaths. Yim stressed the importance of incorporating climate pattern analysis into air pollution mitigation strategies to effectively safeguard public health worldwide.

Educating health workers about PM2.5

“Our study highlights how climate patterns affect air pollution, and this is crucial for health care professionals because it directly impacts public health,” stated Distinguished University Professor Joseph Sung, NTU’s Senior Vice President (Health and Life Sciences) and Dean of NTU’s Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine.

He emphasized that understanding these climate-pollution relationships enables medical professionals to anticipate and prepare for potential surges in patients with pollution-related health issues.

Professor Sung also stressed the need for preventive strategies to combat pollution and its health consequences, suggesting that such measures could significantly reduce the strain on healthcare systems and improve overall community well-being.

Advancing air pollution research and policy

The research team plans to conduct more detailed studies to gain a deeper understanding of local air pollution patterns and further elucidate the mechanisms behind how climate patterns influence the formation and reduction of PM2.5.

This continued research will be crucial in developing effective strategies to combat air pollution and protect public health globally.

By focusing on the intersection of climate patterns and air quality, this study underscores the urgent need for comprehensive policies that address the multifaceted nature of air pollution and its far-reaching impacts on human health.

The full study was published in the journal Environment International.


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