Air pollution is killing millions across the globe, claims State of Global Air report

Pollution is the second leading cause for death and life long health problems among children. In 2021, it killed over 700,000 children

June 20, 2024 by Abdul Rahman
Delhi air pollution 2019. Photo: Wikimedia commons

Air pollution is the second leading risk factor for premature deaths in the world, according to the State of Global Air (SoGA) report published by the Health Effects Institute (HEI) in partnership with the UN Children Fund (UNICEF) on Wednesday, June 19.

The report which covers more than 200 countries from across the globe claimed that everyone on earth inhales polluted air with far reaching health implications. In 2021, over 8.1 million globally died due to air pollution, with millions of other suffering from diseases caused by air pollution.

The report says that the outdoor fine particulate matter (PM2.5) which comes from the burning of fossil fuel and biomass, industries and transportation is responsible for over 90% of all air pollution related deaths. Other major pollutants are ozone and nitrogen dioxide. Nearly 490,000 deaths were caused by long term exposure to ozone alone in 2021.

The death and diseases caused by air pollution are a key factor behind increased strain on health care systems, economies, and societies across the globe but particularly among the developing countries in Africa and Asia.

Countries in Asia and Africa are the most affected due to the air pollution with South Asia being the region where there is the highest annual average exposure to PM2.5. In Africa and the Middle East, dust and power generation play a major role in generating PM2.5. In South Asia, unsafe pollution levels are mainly caused by the burning of residential fuel use, energy generation, industries, and agriculture playing significant roles.

Though the global average of exposure to PM2.5 is somewhere around 50%, in South Asia and Africa, 60% to over 80% of the population are exposed to household air pollution whereas the figure is almost zero for the high income countries in the West.

Children below five are the most vulnerable

The report indicates that children are uniquely vulnerable to air pollution with the high risk of permanent health damage from the time when they are in the womb. This is particularly so because children inhale more air per kilogram of their body weight than adults.

The report raises the alarm that air pollution is also the second largest risk factor after malnutrition for the death of children under the age of five. Nearly 30% of all deaths among infants and close to 15% of all deaths of children below the age of five, were caused by air pollution. In 2021 over 700,000 children under five died due to the air pollution.

However, the impact of air pollution on children’s health is not uniform in the world with the death rate among children under five in African countries being 100 times higher than their counterparts in high income countries, the report says.

In the press release on the occasion of the release of the report, UNICEF deputy executive director Kitty van der Heijden expressed disappointment at the inaction of the global community to address the issue of air pollution and its grave impact on public health noting that “despite progress in maternal and child health, every day almost 2,000 children under five years die because of health impacts linked to air pollution.”

HEI President Dr. Elina Craft said that “air pollution has enormous implications for health. We know that improving air quality and global public health is practical and achievable.”