Air pollution kills – and costs


Air pollution kills. WHO estimated that pollution caused 7 million deaths globally in 2016; 4.3 million from household air pollution, the remaining 3.7 million from outdoor air pollution. That makes air pollution about as lethal as “lifestyle killers” smoking, high cholesterol, high blood sugar and obesity. Most air pollution-related deaths are from heart disease and stroke, but many are also due to respiratory diseases and cancers. Air pollution causes almost 1 in 3 lung cancer deaths, 1 in 4 deaths from stroke, and 1 in 4 heart disease deaths.

Killer No 1: PM2.5

Particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter sounds harmless, but PM2.5 is death and disease air pollutant number one. Vehicles combusting diesel fuel are major culprits, as well as the burning of biomass, coal and kerosene for cooking, heating and lighting. Diesel vehicles also emit nitrogen oxide (NOx), which is also linked to several of these health risks. So is ozone.

9 out of 10 people globally live in places where outdoor air pollution makes it unsafe to breathe

According to WHO, 91% of people globally live in places where outdoor air pollution makes it unsafe to breathe. Only about 1 in 10 cities globally meet WHO air quality thresholds. Pollution in some of them is 2-5 times the threshold.

Costs to society are in the trillions

cooking on open fire
Photo by Hailegebrael Berhanu on Unsplash

Air pollution costs are huge. The OECD estimated in 2010 that air pollution (including both deaths and illness) costs about USD 1.7 trillion for its member countries, and that road transport caused about half of this. It estimated China’s cost at about USD 1.4 trillion, and India’s at about USD 0.5 trillion. In 2016, the OECD said pollution costs roughly 5% of a country’s income. The World Bank estimated that 5.5 million people died globally due to air pollution in 2013, at a cost of USD 225 billion in lost labour income and at least USD 5 trillion in welfare losses.

The European Environment Agency made a similar overview for industrial facilities in Europe. It found that about 150 (roughly 1%) of the facilities were responsible for 50% of the damage cost, which totalled between €329 billion and 1053 billion in the period 2008-2012.

What can be done?

City cyclists
Photo by Dovile Ramoskaite on Unsplash

That’s pretty depressing stuff. The good news is that quite a bit can be – and is – done to stop both outdoor and indoor air pollution. Industries are forced to lower their air emissions. Many countries support clean energy for cooking, heating and lighting.

However, these are still just good examples, not the standard. And ironically lots of countries still subsidise fossil fuels. Why? Well, if they stop, people typically get mad. Lots of cities and towns now try to plan for a combination of rapid transit and walking/cycling instead of car traffic. This is perhaps the most promising path forward, because it kills a number of birds with one stone: it reduces traffic injuries, air pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions causing global warming, and supports physical activity – which, in turn, reduces obesity.

Stay updated!

We keep your data private.

Airmine app

Track your symptoms to air pollution and pollen & get local air quality forecasts

Get it on Google Play


Smoke from west? No, dust from east

Did the huge forest fires on the US West Coast in September impact air quality in Europe? Not really, the measurements show. What did have an impact, was dust transported by winds from south east.

Better air in Beijing than San Francisco

Last week, you'd rather breathe Delhi air than take a stroll in San Francisco. Smoke and ashes from the huge forest make air quality on the US West Coast the worst in the world.

Air pollution shortens more lives than smoking, drugs and malaria

Although we are in the midst of a global pandemic, air pollution remains the single major contributor to loss in life expectancy across the globe.

Has air quality improved during lockdowns?

Delhi has had much cleaner air during the Covid-19 lockdowns, whereas we do not find the same improvement in PM2.5 levels in Oslo, Norway.

Birch pollen – how did it develop?

The birch season is over for this year - we have dived into our data and created a visualisation of how it developed in Europe.

Watch out: Link between air pollution and glaucoma

Researchers have found a link between glaucoma and air pollution. People living in areas with high levels of air pollution run a higher risk of developing glaucoma.

Vaccine pills for birch pollen

Vaccine pills for birch pollen allergy become...