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Short-term pollution claims more than one million lives per year

Researchers from Monash University have unveiled startling data concerning the global impact of short-term air pollution. The study has revealed that a shocking number of premature deaths can be attributed to short-term exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5). 

The researchers found that breathing in PM2.5 for even a few hours, and up to a few days, results in more than a million premature deaths worldwide every year.

Shifting the focus to short-term pollution

The study, led by Professor Yuming Guo, underscores the lethal consequences of brief episodes of high air pollution.

This revelation shifts the focus from the long-term effects of persistent air pollution, which have been extensively studied, to the equally deadly but less understood short-term spikes in PM2.5 levels.

Short-term pollution exposure

The experts analyzed mortality and PM2.5 pollution levels across more than 13,000 cities and towns globally over two decades, up until 2019. 

The results highlight the urgent need for addressing air pollution not just as a chronic urban challenge but as an acute threat that can arise suddenly and with devastating health impacts

The researchers found that over 50% of the deaths attributable to short-term PM2.5 exposure occur in Eastern Asia, presenting a significant public health challenge.

The greatest mortality burden 

Asia, as the study indicates, bears the brunt of the mortality burden, with approximately 65.2% of global deaths due to short-term PM2.5 exposure. Africa follows with 17.0%, Europe with 12.1%, the Americas with 5.6%, and Oceania with a minimal 0.1%. 

These statistics underscore a disproportionate impact on Asia and Africa, emphasizing the need for targeted interventions in these regions.

Public health interventions needed in urban areas

The experts also determined that more than one fifth (22.74%) of the short-term exposure-related deaths occurred in urban areas. This underscores the lethal synergy of high population densities and air pollution spikes. 

Cities and towns, often scenes of dramatic pollution episodes due to landscape fires, dust storms, or industrial emissions, emerge as critical areas for public health interventions.

The team also pinpointed the specific challenges that are faced by different regions. For example, while most areas in Australia experienced a slight decrease in the number of deaths attributable to short-term PM2.5 exposure, the fraction of deaths attributable to such exposure has actually increased.

This is potentially due to the rising frequency and intensity of bushfire events, like those experienced during the “Black Summer” of 2019-20.

Professor Guo said these megafires were estimated to have led to 429 smoke-related premature deaths and 3,230 hospital admissions as a result of acute and persistent exposure to extremely high levels of bushfire-related air pollution. 

Broader implications 

To mitigate the acute health damages of high PM2.5 concentrations, there is a need for targeted interventions. These could include air-pollution warning systems, community evacuation plans, and public health initiatives designed to minimize exposure during pollution spikes. 

Such strategies not only acknowledge the immediate dangers posed by high pollution levels but also represent a critical step toward safeguarding public health in the face of environmental challenges.

“Understanding the mortality burden associated with short-term exposure toPM2.5 in such areas is crucial for mitigating the negative effects of air pollution on the urban population,” wrote the study authors. 

The research is published in the journal The Lancet Planetary Health


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