Dirty air kills twice as many as previously thought: WHO

Air pollution is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk, prematurely killing some seven million people in 2012 alone, said the World Health Organization.

People die prematurely of pollution-linked strokes, ischaemic heart disease, cancer, respiratory infections and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD), said WHO in estimates released in Geneva on March 25.

A woman cooks over an open fire in her kitchen in India. Smoke from such fires causes millions of deaths annually, said the World Health Organization. © WHO/TDR /Andy Crump 2001

The organization’s new estimates are double the numbers of people previously suspected killed by dirty air, both indoor and outdoor, and WHO announced a  program to better track information and advise and inform countries of health gains from reducing pollution.

The problem is global. In France this month an environmental agency, Ecologie Sans Frontiere, filed a criminal complaint of “endangering others” over the recent extreme smog in Paris. On Monday the European Union’s environmental agency announced that 11 EU countries exceed pollution limits. China, especially affected by thick smog, has begun using drones to inspect polluting factories, said the state-run news outlet China Daily.

WHO said the countries most affected by air pollution are in South-East Asia and the Western Pacific Regions where, said WHO’s Dr. Flavia Bustreo in a statement, “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.”

The causes of indoor pollution are mostly cooking over coal, wood and biomass (dung) stoves — and they especially affect women and children, said WHO. In a WHO feature accompanying the report it quoted Dr Kirk Smith of the University of California at Berkeley, an expert in pollution from biomass stoves: “Having an open fire in your kitchen is like burning 400 cigarettes an hour.”

Outdoors, WHO laid the blame for pollution on transport, energy, waste management and industry.

“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, in the WHO statement. “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.”

The WHO report said ischaemic heart disease and stroke kill the greatest numbers of people, with COPD a close third.

Copyright Deborah Jones 2014

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