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Air Pollution and Its Health Impacts

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By Kimberly Arsenault
Contributor, EDM Digest

A new report on global air pollution reveals the impacts of poor air quality on human health and highlights the worst countries in the world when it comes to polluted air. Central and Western sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia, including India, currently rank among the worst air polluters, primarily as a result of combustion sources, including coal-fired power plants.

The study points to decades of research that has been conducted throughout the world in cities with some of the highest levels of air pollution, and has identified links to disease and premature deaths. Some of the impacts to human health and diseases include an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke, along with higher rates of respiratory illnesses and diseases.

Measuring Air Pollution

To measure air pollution, researchers use the same index found in the Global Burden of Disease project, the ambient fine particulate matter, or PM2.5. When compared to other risk factors, poor PM2.5 ranked 5th highest as a leading cause of deaths, including those deaths related to respiratory infections, lung cancer, and heart disease.

India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and China rank as some of the worst polluters of the air, primarily from combustion sources, such as coal-fired power plants, industrial and transportation emissions, solid household fuel use (cow dung), and other open burning sources. Even worse, air pollution concentrations have steadily risen in many of these nations since 2010, resulting in majority of the world's population - nearly 92% in 2015 - living in cities with the highest levels of air pollution.

China's increases, which continued unabated from 1990 to 2010, have recently stabilized, while India and Bangladesh continue to increase at alarming rates. Poor air quality-related deaths in India soared 50% from 1990 to 2015, or nearly 15 deaths for every 100,000 people. The numbers also correspond with an increased exposure resulting from a population that is aging and growing. In November of 2016, more than 1,800 schools throughout Delhi, India closed and people had to wear face masks due to heavy smog from emissions sources, including coal, wood, and dung.

India Set to Surpass China

Together, total deaths in China and India accounted for 52% of lives lost due to air pollution related health issues, including ischemic heart disease, lung cancer, and stroke. Although China still ranks the highest in the number of deaths due to exposure to poor ambient PM2.5, India is rapidly closing the gap in overall deaths attributed to poor air quality. In 2015, deaths attributable to poor ambient PM2.5 exposure in China accounted for over 1.1 million while deaths in India ranked a close second at more than 1.09 million.

Aggressive Emissions Policies Improve Air Quality

The report also highlighted nations that rank lowest in air pollution, including Canada, Finland, Sweden, Australia, and New Zealand, noting that the reduction of air pollution is likely contributed to aggressive emissions strategies adopted by these nations. As findings from the report further indicate, effectively reducing emissions improves air quality and reduces health risks, providing a strong basis for helping nations adopt aggressive emissions reduction strategies, especially those related to solid fuels such as coal.

Kimberly Arsenault Kimberly Arsenault serves as an intern at the Cleveland/Bradley County Emergency Management Agency where she works on plan revisions and special projects. Previously, Kimberly spent 15 years in commercial and business aviation. Her positions included station manager at the former Midwest Express Airlines, as well as corporate flight attendant, inflight manager, and charter flight coordinator. Kimberly currently holds a master's degree in emergency and disaster management from American Public University.