No one can argue that diseases like malaria and HIV are scourges; combined, they kill approximately 2.8 million people on this planet every year. If only we could see air pollution, which causes even more premature deaths, in the same deadly light.

According to a new study, air pollution kills 3.3 million people every year worldwide. Seth Borenstein says the United States ranks 7th in the world (54,905 deaths in 2010), behind the top three nations — China (1.4 million deaths), India, and Pakistan:

Scientists in Germany, Cyprus, Saudi Arabia and at Harvard University calculated the most detailed estimates yet of the toll of air pollution, looking at what caused it. The study also projects that if trends don’t change, the yearly death total will double to about 6.6 million a year by 2050.

The study, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, used health statistics and computer models. About three quarters of the deaths are from strokes and heart attacks, said lead author Jos Lelieveld at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany.


Maggie Fox cites another study published last week where researchers confirmed that fine particulate matter, which is 0ne component of air pollution, is especially harmful:

The survey of more than 500,000 Americans shows that as air pollution levels rise in the areas where they live, rates of death rise. The researchers have even shown that as levels of certain pollutants in the air go up, rates of death go up — especially deaths from heart disease.

“Our data add to a growing body of evidence that particulate matter is really harmful to health, increasing overall mortality, mostly deaths from cardiovascular disease, as well as deaths from respiratory disease in nonsmokers,” George Thurston of New York University’s Langone Medical Center, who led the study, said in a statement.

The study involves air pollutants called particulates, in this case tiny particles 2.5 micrometers or less. They can settle deep into the lungs and are not coughed up like grit might be. They also often consist of dangerous heavy metals such as mercury or arsenic.


The Environmental Protection Agency’s “Top 6” components of air pollution are ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and lead. Harmful ground-level ozone, in contrast to the natural protective layer of ozone in the stratosphere, is formed when sunlight causes nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds (both byproducts of burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas) to react, causing “smog.” The Air Quality Index (AQI) measures ozone and particulate matter concentrations and is the basis for air quality reporting you might hear in a typical weather report. These days around Pittsburgh, an area known for poor air quality since its glory days of steel-making, the AQI is regularly NOT in the safe, or “green light,” zone. In 2012, Pittsburgh experienced 245 “yellow light” days (66%);  35 days (10%) were in the orange and red (or worse) zones, previously referred to as “ozone action days.” These are the days, usually on hot, summertime afternoons, when the air is unhealthy and the most vulnerable people among us — children, elderly adults, people with heart and lung disease, and even healthy people who work and exercise outdoors — are warned to stay indoors, preferably in air conditioning.

Breathing unhealthy levels of ozone leads to two detrimental effects on lung function. First, there is a restrictive component: the inhibition of airway neural receptors causes an inability to inhale completely. A higher respiratory rate with shallow breathing results, along with the feeling of being short of breath. Second, inflammation of the airways causes an obstructive component which results in coughing, wheezing, and the feeling of chest discomfort and tightness. These effects can affect any person on any “ozone action day.” For children with asthma, chronic lung disease of prematurity, and cystic fibrosis, or adults with underlying asthma, COPD, emphysema, and other chronic lung or heart diseases, increased symptoms are expected on unhealthy air days. These symptoms lead to increased asthma exacerbations, school absences and lost wages from missed work, increased utilization of the health care system from doctors visits, medications, emergency room visits and hospitalizations, and, most severely, death.

There is also now ample evidence that chronic exposure to air pollution leads to increases in heart disease, strokes, lung cancer, and early death in adults. A number of studies have also linked chronic exposure during pregnancy to premature births, poor birth outcomes, autism, and infant mortality. In children, chronic exposure to air pollution has been associated with ADHD and obesity.

The EPA is currently considering the adoption of new, updated, science-based standards for ozone pollution, below the limit which is currently considered safe to children and their families (75PPB). Some special interests, especially those who produce the bulk of toxic emissions, will oppose the plan to change the ozone standard. They will state that the cost of compliance with the new rules will be too high, that jobs will be lost, and that there is no guarantee that new regulations will be effective.

But the cost of inaction in regard to human health is clear. It was clear when, in 1978, the U.S. government, along with other countries, banned the production and sale of CFC’s — chemicals thought to be causing a dangerous hole in the stratospheric ozone layer. The same arguments from the law’s opponents were used, the sky didn’t fall, and the ozone layer continues to recover, bringing a huge health (and economic) benefit for all people. It was also clear in 1990 when the EPA regulated power plants’ emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, effectively dealing with “acid rain” in the Northeastern part of the U.S. — all despite the same rabid objections that predicted economic calamity — and leading to major ecological (and economic) benefits.

There is a saying that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Malaria. HIV. Air pollution. None of these will make you stronger.

You can read the EPA’s proposal to update the ground-level ozone standard here.