Scientists link millions of deaths to air pollution: What can be done?

A new study published in the journal Nature found that air particles from traffic, agriculture, even cooking are causing premature deaths, especially in Asia.

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Girls take a selfie at the haze shrouded Batanghari River bridge in Jambi, Indonesia Sumatra island, on Monday. Indonesian islands are blanketed in the so-called 'haze,' caused by slash-and-burn clearances on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo.

A new study linking millions of deaths around the world to air pollution offers some dire predictions for global health if pollution continues to rise at the current rate, but also points to key geographic locations and industries where new pollution controls could have the most significant impact on air quality.

The researchers, affiliated with the Max Planck Institute in Germany, found that the polluted particles – which are often the result of everyday activities such as waste burning, diesel generators, even heating and cooking – are a leading cause of death around the world.

They say the death toll from this fine particulate matter, also known as PM 2.5 (or smaller than 2.5 micrometres), has already reached 3.3 million people and could double in the next 35 years.

"This is an astounding number," Jos Lelieveld of the Planck Institute, who led the research, told Reuters. "In some countries air pollution is actually a leading cause of death, and in many countries it is a major issue."

The problem is particularly significant in Asian countries with large populations. The polluted particles account for 32 percent of the premature deaths in China and 50 to 60 percent in Bangladesh in India, according to a summary of the scientists’ research published in Nature.

The Plank Institute scientists hope the research will prompt regulators around the world to take steps to improve air quality.

The sources of pollution vary considerably across the world, they say. In the eastern United States, Europe, Russia, and East Asia, agricultural emissions are the most common type of pollutant. In India and China, however, cooking and heating are the most prevalent sources. In other regions, traffic and power generation are the crucial contributors.

The Planck Institute researchers argue that reducing ambient exposure to pollution could save an estimated one million lives, Michael Jerrett, an environmental health sciences professor at the University of California Los Angeles, writes in a Nature commentary.

Focusing on converting to cleaner energy sources, particularly in densely populated countries like China or India, could also have a large scale impact, Professor Jerrett writes.

“Incentivizing the use of cleaner fuels or of electricity for local energy needs would reduce mortality from both indoor and ambient PM 2.5 exposure and should be a priority in Asia and other regions that rely on solid fuels,” he wrote.

This report includes material from Reuters.

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