Study Finds Air Pollution Causes a High Risk for Premature Death

Aislinn Antrim, Assistant Editor
Published Online: Thursday, March 12th, 2020
While it is well known that air pollution increases risks of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, a new study has found that the global loss of life expectancy caused by air pollution is higher than other risk factors, such as smoking, infectious diseases, and violence.1
Researchers examined the link between exposure to pollutants and the occurrence of diseases using an atmospheric chemical mode. They then combined their exposure data with the Global Exposure – Mortality Model, derived from various epidemiological cohort studies.1

The researchers analyzed the effect of air pollution on 6 categories of disease: lower respiratory tract infection, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, heart disease, cerebrovascular disease leading to stroke, and other noncommunicable diseases, including conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes.2
The analysis found that cardiovascular diseases had 43% of the shortened lives due to air pollution worldwide—the largest proportion of shortened lives due to air pollution.2
They also found that older people are affected the most, with the exception of deaths in children aged 5 years and younger in low income countries. Globally, approximately 75% of deaths attributed to air pollution occur in people over age 60 years, according to the researchers.2
Geographically, the results of their investigation show that the mortality caused by ambient air pollution is highest in East Asia (35%) and South Asia (32%), followed by Africa (11%), Europe (9%), and North and South America (6%). The lowest mortality rates were found in Australia (1.5%), which the authors attributed to the country’s strict air quality standards.1
In addition to their geographic analysis, the researchers found that air pollution caused 8.8 million premature deaths worldwide in 2015, corresponding to an average 2.9-year reduction in life expectancy per capita. To put that in context, the researchers noted that tobacco smoking reduces life expectancy by an average of 2.2 years, HIV/AIDS by 0.7 years, and parasitic and vector-borne diseases by 0.6 years.1
“Air pollution exceeds malaria as a cause of premature death by a factor of 19,” said Jos Lelieveld, PhD, director at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and first author of the study, in a statement. “It exceeds violence by a factor of 17, and HIV/AIDS by a factor of 9. Given the huge impact on public health and the global population, one could say that our results indicate an air pollution pandemic.”1

Almost 2/3 of the deaths caused by air pollution are avoidable, according to the researchers. They estimated that the average global life expectancy would increase by more than a year if the emissions from the use of fossil fuels were eliminated.1
  1. Air pollution is one of the world’s most dangerous health risks [news release]. Max Planck Gesellschaft, March 3, 2020. Accessed March 11, 2020.
  2. The world faces an air pollution ‘pandemic’ [news release]. European Society of Cardiology; March 3, 2020. Accessed March 11, 2020.

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