World Health Organization Reports Air Pollution Killed 7 Million People in 2012
In new estimates released Tuesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported about 7 million people died as a result of air pollution exposure in 2012.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
This finding more than doubles previous estimates and confirms that air pollution is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk as 1 in every 8 deaths is linked to it.
In particular, the new research reveals a stronger connection between both indoor and outdoor air pollution exposure and cardiovascular diseases, such as strokes and heart disease, as well as cancer. The report also found air pollution plays a role in the development of respiratory diseases, including acute respiratory infections and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases.
The new estimates used improved measurements and technology, enabling scientists to make a more detailed analysis of health risks from a wider demographic spread that now includes both urban and rural areas.
Low- and middle-income countries in the WHO South-East Asia and Western Pacific Regions had the largest air pollution-related burden in 2012, with a total of 3.3 million deaths linked to indoor air pollution and 2.6 million deaths related to outdoor air pollution.
“Cleaning up the air we breathe prevents noncommunicable diseases as well as reduces disease risks among women and vulnerable groups, including children and the elderly,” said Dr Flavia Bustreo, WHO assistant director of General Family, Women and Children’s Health. “Poor women and children pay a heavy price from indoor air pollution since they spend more time at home breathing in smoke and soot from leaky coal and wood cook stoves.”
Included in the assessment is a breakdown of deaths attributed to specific diseases, which shows the vast majority of air pollution deaths are tied to cardiovascular diseases.
Outdoor Air Pollution-Caused Deaths—Breakdown by Disease:
- 40 percent: Ischaemic heart disease
- 40 percent: Stroke
- 11 percent: Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
- 6 percent: Lung cancer
- 3 percent: Acute lower respiratory infections in children
Indoor Air Pollution-caused deaths—Breakdown by Disease:
- 34 percent: Stroke
- 26 percent: Ischaemic heart disease
- 22 percent: Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
- 12 percent: Acute lower respiratory infections in children
- 6 percent: Lung cancer
The estimates of people’s exposure to outdoor air pollution in different parts of the world were tabulated using a new global data mapping system, which incorporated satellite data, ground-level monitoring measurements and data on pollution emissions from key sources, as well as modeling of how pollution drifts in the air.
Risk Factors Are Greater Than Expected
“The risks from air pollution are now far greater than previously thought or understood, particularly for heart disease and strokes,” said Dr Maria Neira, director of WHO’s Department for Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health. “Few risks have a greater impact on global health today than air pollution; the evidence signals the need for concerted action to clean up the air we all breathe.”
WHO estimates indoor air pollution was linked to 4.3 million deaths in 2012 in households cooking over coal, wood and biomass stoves.
Regarding outdoor air pollution, WHO estimates there were 3.7 million deaths in 2012 from urban and rural sources worldwide.
“Excessive air pollution is often a by-product of unsustainable policies in sectors such as transport, energy, waste management and industry," said Dr Carlos Dora, WHO coordinator for Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health. "In most cases, healthier strategies will also be more economical in the long term due to healthcare cost savings as well as climate gains. WHO and health sectors have a unique role in translating scientific evidence on air pollution into policies that can deliver impact and improvements that will save lives.”
Later this year, WHO will release indoor air quality guidelines on household fuel combustion, as well as country data on outdoor and indoor air pollution exposures and related mortality, plus an update of air quality measurements in 1,600 cities from all regions of the world.
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By Tony Carnie
South Africa is home to around 1,300 of the world's roughly 7,100 remaining cheetahs. It's also the only country in the world with significant cheetah population growth, thanks largely to a nongovernmental conservation project that depends on careful and intensive human management of small, fenced-in cheetah populations. Because most of the reserves are privately funded and properly fenced, the animals benefit from higher levels of security than in the increasingly thinly funded state reserves.
Vincent van der Merwe at a cheetah translocation. Endangered Wildlife Trust
Under Pressure<p>Cheetah populations elsewhere in Southern Africa have not prospered over the past 50 years. In Zimbabwe, cheetah numbers have crashed from 1,500 in 1975, to just 170 today. Botswana's cheetah population has held steady at around 1,500 over the same period, but illegal capture for captive breeding and conflicts with farmers and the growing human population are increasing. In Namibia, there were an estimated 3,000 cheetah in in 1975; roughly 1,400 remain today.</p><p>In contrast, South Africa's cheetah numbers have grown from about 500 in 1975 to nearly 1,300 today. Van der Merwe, who is also a Ph.D. student at the University of Cape Town's Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild), says he's confident that South Africa will soon overtake Namibia and Botswana, largely because the majority of South African cheetahs are protected and managed behind fences, whereas most of the animals in the neighboring countries remain more vulnerable on mainly unfenced lands.</p><p>Wildlife researchers Florian Weise and colleagues have reported that private stock owners in Namibia still trap cheetahs mainly for translocation, but there are few public or private reserves large enough to contain them. Weise says that conservation efforts need to focus on improving tolerance toward cheetahs in commercial livestock and game farming areas to reduce indiscriminate trapping.</p><p>Van der Merwe says fences can be both a blessing and a curse. While these barriers prevent cheetahs and other wild animals from migrating naturally to breed and feed, they also protect cheetahs from the growing tide of threats from humanity and agriculture.</p><p>To simulate natural dispersion patterns that guard against inbreeding, the trust helps landowners swap their animals with other cheetah reserves elsewhere in the country. The South African metapopulation project has been so successful in boosting numbers that the trust is having to look beyond national boundaries to secure new translocation areas in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique.</p><p>Cheetah translocations have been going on in South Africa since the mid-1960s, when the first unsuccessful attempts were made to move scores of these animals from Namibia. These relocations were mostly unsuccessful.</p>
Charli de Vos uses a VHF antenna to locate cheetahs in Phinda Game Reserve. Tony Carnie for Mongabay
Swinging for the Fences<p>But other wildlife conservation leaders have a different perspective on cheetah conservation strategy.</p><p>Gus Mills, a senior carnivore researcher retired in 2006 from SANParks, the agency that manages South Africa's national parks, after a career of more than 30 years in Kalahari and Kruger national parks. He says the focus should be on quality of living spaces rather than the quantity of cheetahs.</p><p>Mills, who was the founder of the Endangered Wildlife Trust's Carnivore Conservation Group in 1995, and who also spent six years after retirement studying cheetahs in the Kalahari, says it's more important to properly protect and, where possible, expand the size of existing protected areas.</p><p>He also advocates a triage approach to cheetah conservation, in which scarce funds and resources are focused on protecting cheetahs in formally protected areas, rather than diluting scarce resources in an attempt to try and save every single remaining cheetah population.</p><p>"People have an obsession with numbers. But I believe that it is more important to protect large landscape and habitats properly," Mills said.</p><p>He suggests that cheetahs enclosed within small reserves live in artificial conditions: "It's almost like glorified farming."</p><p>"In the long run we have to focus on consolidating formally protected areas," he added. "Africa's human population will double by 2050, so cheetah populations in unfenced areas will become unsustainable if they are eating people's livestock."</p>
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