Every year around 140 people in Cyprus die prematurely from the effects of air pollution with 80 of the deaths due to the airborne desert dust that regularly plague the island, new global research revealed on Tuesday.
In fact more ten times more people die from air pollution than road accidents, the research – the first of its kind – revealed.
It said that in the wider region of eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East and northern Africa premature deaths are estimated at about 300, 000 per year, and globally 3.3 million.
According to the study by the Cyprus Institute and Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, air pollution could claim 6.6 million lives by 2050.
“Every year 3.3 million people die prematurely from the effects of air pollution worldwide – a figure that could double by 2050 if emissions continue to rise at the current rate,” the researchers said.
Surprisingly, they said, the largest sources of air pollution were not industry and transport but small domestic fires and agriculture.
These findings were published by the scientific journal Nature.
The team headed by Johannes Lelieveld, Director at the Max Planck Institute and Professor Despina Giannadaki at the Cyprus Institute (CyI), reported that 1.4 million people per year in China and 650,000 people in India die every year as a consequence of air pollution.
In the EU exposure to fine particles and ozone claims 180,000 lives a year, they said. In many countries, air pollution accounts for roughly ten-times more deaths than road accidents.
For the first time, researchers said, mortality rates were studied based on various emission sources, such as industry, transport, agriculture, fossil fuel-fired power plants, as well as domestic energy use. The latter category includes diesel generators, small stoves and smoky open wood fires, which many people in Asia use for heating and cooking.
Strokes and heart attacks account for three-quarters of the premature deaths.
Lelieveld’s team focused on the most critical air pollutants, namely fine particles with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres and ozone.
They used a global atmospheric chemistry model to calculate the concentrations of pollutants together with the most recent data from epidemiological studies. “We know rather well from statistical epidemiological studies in Europe and the US how specific pollutant concentrations affect mortality rates,” said Lelieveld. However, he pointed out that the data were not representative of many megacities in Asia, where air pollution was much higher than in European and American cities. The team used a refined method to determine the impact of extreme smog in those locations.
“Some 3.3 million people die prematurely every year as a result of air pollution. That’s a huge toll,” said Lelieveld, commenting on the results. Nearly three-quarters of the deaths are due to strokes and heart attacks, and 27 per cent to respiratory diseases and lung cancer.
According to epidemiological studies, fine particulate matter leads to cerebrovascular, heart and pulmonary diseases and lung cancer, while ozone tends to cause pulmonary conditions such as chronic cough and shortness of breath. The microscopic particles penetrate deep into the lungs and possibly even into blood vessels, increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke. It is still unclear, the researchers said, how various types of fine particles, such as soot, sulphates, organic substances and fine mineral particles, differ in their toxic effects.
Lelieveld and his colleagues, they said, were surprised when they examined the individual sources of air pollution. “It is generally assumed that industry and transport are the worst air polluters. But that is evidently not the case on a global scale,” he said. Much of the smog in India and China is caused by small domestic fires. Overall, one-third of premature deaths worldwide are attributable to this inefficient form of combustion.
By contrast, a leading cause of air pollution in Europe, Russia, Turkey, Japan and the eastern United States was, surprisingly, agriculture. Ammonia enters the atmosphere as a result of the use of fertilisers and intensive livestock farming. It then undergoes a number of reactions to form ammonium sulphate and ammonium nitrate.
These substances, in turn, are a major factor in the formation of small airborne particles. Agriculture is the cause of one-fifth of all deaths due to air pollution. In some countries, for example in the Ukraine, Russia and Germany, that figure was over 40 pr cent.
Other major sources are fossil-fuel fired power plants, industry, biomass combustion and motor vehicles. Taken together, they account for another third of premature deaths. Just under a fifth of premature deaths are attributed to natural dust sources, particularly desert dust in North Africa and the Middle East.
If emissions continue to rise at current rates and are not curbed by new legislation, the researcher says pollution-related mortality in South Asia and East Asia would double by 2050 and the number of smog-induced deaths worldwide could rise to 6.6 million per year. Pollution-related mortality in Europe and the USA is likely to increase moderately, especially in big cities.