Air pollution kills nearly nine million people across the world each year – twice as many as global health chiefs assumed, a study has claimed.
Scientists now say breathing in toxic air caused by vehicle exhaust fumes, factories and power plants is responsible for more deaths than smoking.
The World Health Organization (WHO) previously estimated air pollution was to blame for 4.5million deaths across the world.
But German researchers recalculated available data to discover the true toll is closer to the 8.8million mark, with most caused by heart diseases.
In contrast, WHO – a branch of the UN – estimated tobacco smoking was responsible for 7.2million deaths globally in 2015.
Professor Thomas Munzel, from the University Medical Centre Mainz, a co-author of the study, said: ‘Smoking is avoidable, but air pollution is not.’
Estimated excess mortality attributed to air pollution in Europe, and the contributing disease categories. At least 48 per cent are due to cardiovascular disease (ischemic heart disease and stroke). A fraction of other non-communicable diseases should also be counted to cardiovascular diseases related mortality, with an upper limit of 32 per cent
The scientists behind the study have now called for stricter curbs on tiny PM2.5 particles in the air, which penetrate deep into the lungs when inhaled.
Currently, the average safety limit for PM2.5 particles in the EU is 25 micrograms per cubic metre of air – more than double the WHO recommendation of 10.
‘Many other countries, such as Canada, the US and Australia, use the WHO guideline,’ said Professor Munzel. ‘The EU is lagging a long way behind in this respect.’
Professor Jos Lelieveld, co-author of the study, said the poor air quality and dense population was to blame for Europe having a high number of pollution deaths.
In Europe alone, the researchers put the excess death toll figure from air pollution at 790,000, twice the previous estimate.
The scientific team analysed computer simulations of how natural and man-made chemicals interact with the atmosphere.
Diesel road vehicles are one of the biggest producers of particulate pollution in developed countries such as the UK (stock image)
This chiefly comes from fine sooty particles pouring out of vehicle exhausts, factories and power plants (stock image)
|Country||Population (2015)||Air pollution deaths (2015)|
|Bosnia and Herzegovina||3,810,000||5,349|
|Serbia and Montenegro||9,477,000||15,887|
This was then applied to data on population density, disease risk factors and known causes of death.
Worldwide, air pollution was found to account for 120 extra deaths per 100,000 people per year, according to the findings in the European Heart Journal.
The picture was even worse in Europe, with 133 per 100,000 deaths attributed to inhaled pollutant chemicals.
Air pollution was thought to cause 40,000 deaths in the UK, where the Government has repeatedly been hauled into court for breaching safe levels.
But the recalculated figures estimated toxic air was actually to blame for 64,000 deaths in the UK in 2015, including 17,000 from heart diseases.
More than 29,000 other British deaths linked to air pollution were due to a range of conditions such as cancer, diabetes and chronic lung disease.
Average life expectancy was reduced by 1.5 years among people in the UK dying as a result of air pollution, according to the study.
Britain’s worst pollution hotspots was outside Earls Court tube station in London where the annual average of 129.5 micrograms per cubic metre of air was triple that of the World Health Organization’s 40 mcg limit, according to research last month
POLLUTION LEVELS ILLEGAL IN MOST UK MONITORING ZONES
The UK’s air pollution was labelled a ‘national embarrassment’ in September.
Figures for 2017 showed 37 out of 43 air quality zones across the UK had illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution, the same number as the previous year.
Annual average levels of the pollutant from exhaust fumes fell in most places, figures from the Government and environmental law charity ClientEarth revealed.
But levels are still more than double the legal limit in Greater London and also well over the limit in areas including South Wales, West Midlands, Glasgow and Greater Manchester.
Brighton, Worthing and Littlehampton in West Sussex – an area declared as legal in the previous year – crept up to just below the threshold again, the statistics show.
The UK has been breaching EU pollution limits for nitrogen dioxide, much of which comes from diesel vehicles, since the rules came into effect in 2010.
Air pollution causes an estimated 40,000 premature deaths a year in the UK and is linked to health problems from childhood illnesses to heart disease and even dementia.
However, Britons were not as badly affected by pollution as some of their European neighbours.
In Germany, air pollution was said to have been responsible for an extra 124,000 deaths in 2015 and 2.4 years of lost life expectancy.
During the same year an estimated 81,000 people were killed by air pollution in Italy, 67,000 in France and 58,000 in Poland.
Professor Munzel said the number of deaths from cardiovascular disease that can be attributed to air pollution is much higher than expected.
He said: ‘In Europe alone, the excess number of deaths is nearly 800,000 a year and each of these deaths represents an average reduction in life expectancy of more than two years.’
Cases of lung and cardiovascular disease were mainly caused by microscopic ‘PM 2.5’ particles that become lodged in lungs and enter the bloodstream.
Diesel road vehicles are one of the biggest producers of particulate pollution in developed countries such as the UK.
Other sources of the lethal particles include fossil fuel-burning industrial processes, power plants and domestic heating.
The study comes after research last month named and shamed nearly 2,000 places in the UK that break official safety limits for nitrogen dioxide.
The harmful gas produced by cars, buses and lorries – particularly diesels – can trigger asthma attacks and cause breathing problems.
Britain’s worst pollution hotspot was outside Earls Court tube station in London, where the annual average of nitrogen dioxide in air was triple that of the WHO’s limit.
Following the damning research from Friends of the Earth, the NHS watchdog said new homes should be built away from main roads.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommended houses, flats, schools, nurseries and care homes be protected from pollution.
And earlier this week UK officials said parents should be stopped from parking outside schools with their engines running when they pick up and drop off their children.
Cars near the school gates damage children’s health, according to Public Health England, which urged councils to impose tough measures on polluting vehicles.
Congestion charges, bans on cars around schools, lorry bans in city centres and electric car priority parking were proposed by the agency
WHAT IS THE AIR QUALITY INDEX?
The Air Quality Index (AQI) is a measure used by environmental agencies and other public bodies around the world to measure how clean the air is.
The lower the index is, the better the quality of the air.
The AQI provides a number which is easy to compare between different pollutants, locations, and time periods.
Exactly how this score is categorised varies from country to country, but each category in the AQI corresponds to a different level of health risk.
The daily results of the index are used to convey to the public an estimate of air pollution level.
The AQI provides a number which is easy to compare between different pollutants, locations, and time periods. Exactly how this score is categorised varies from country to country, but each category in theAQI corresponds to a different level of health risk
An increase in air quality index signifies increased air pollution and severe threats to human health.
The AQI centres on the health effects that may be experienced within a few days or hours after breathing polluted air.
AQI calculations focus on major air pollutants including: particulate matter, ground-level ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and carbon monoxide.
Particulate matter and ozone pollutants pose the highest risks to human health and the environment.
For each of these air pollutant categories, different countries have their own established air quality indices in relation to other nationally set air quality standards for public health protection.