Air Monitoring

  • How Does Pollution Compare to Smoking?

How Does Pollution Compare to Smoking?

May 07 2019 Read 395 Times

Startling new research into the ill-effects of air pollution on human health has confirmed it as a bigger killer than tobacco for the first time. The study, conducted by the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and published in the European Heart Journal, concluded that poor air quality could be responsible for as many as 8.8 million deaths per year.

That’s almost double the figure of 4.5 million which previous studies attributed to air pollution and significantly higher than the 7.2 million deaths which the World Health Organisation (WHO) attributed to smoking in 2015. The massive discrepancy in the figures is thought to be down to the greater availability of data on how air pollution impacts human health than previous studies had access to.

Problems close to home

While the vast majority of premature deaths from air pollution occur in the developing world, the study found that 790,000 people die young because of poor air quality in Europe alone. Even more concerningly, the damage to human health caused by air pollution in Europe is higher than the global average.

Within individual countries, the number of premature deaths can vary greatly. In Germany, for example, 154 of every 100,000 people are killed before their time by air pollution, while in the UK, that figure is lower at just 98 deaths per 100,000 Britons. One reason for this is believed to be the dispersal effects of the Atlantic winds which can help to move pollution around and prevent it from settling in one place.

While the UK may be comparatively safer than some of its European counterparts in terms of air pollution, it still faces its own grave problems. Many parts of the country have fallen foul of EU pollution thresholds for several years running, incurring fines and resulting in court cases. But one positive note is the growing awareness about the issue among the public, as evidenced by the attendance at last year's Air Quality and Emissions event, which was the highest in 15 years.

Action needed urgently

The largest proportion of air pollution-related deaths were caused not by respiratory complications, but by coronary ones. This is because microscopic contaminants such as particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5), which are as much as 30 times thinner than the width of a human hair, can become absorbed into the bloodstream, obstructing arteries and increasing the likelihood of clotting.

Heart disease accounted for as much as 40% of the pollution-related deaths, while strokes were responsible for a further 8%. Other non-communicable diseases accounted for 32%, while lung cancer (7%), pneumonia (7%) and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (6%) made up the shortfall.

The alarming news that air pollution has now overtaken smoking in terms of deadliness means that immediate action must be taken in order to mitigate its most harmful effects. This involves switching to renewable sources of energy to power our homes and businesses and pursuing environmentally-friendly forms of road transportation to phase out fossil fuels, once and for all.

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