Toxic air linked to millions of early deaths

Poison: In India, Delhi’s dirty air reduces the life expectancy of its citizens by 6.3 years.

How worried should we be about air pollution? A worldwide study has found that over 90% of the planet’s population breathes polluted air. In some extreme places, the fumes could be fatal.

Every year, approximately 1.3 million people die in road crashes. In 2016, 157,000 people were killed in armed conflicts. But these numbers pale in comparison to the seven million premature deaths linked to air pollution every year.

That figure comes from a World Health Organisation (WHO) report released this week. The WHO’s Dr Maria Neira, said air pollution is now the “biggest environmental risk to our health”.

People in poor countries suffer the most. Figures show that 90% of deaths occur in middle- and low-income nations.

Of the world’s 15 most polluted cities, 14 are in India — where people often wear protective masks. Meanwhile, in Mongolia, some have started drinking “oxygen cocktails” to save themselves from the fumes.

As well as smog, the report highlights the poisonous effect of household pollution caused by cooking with fuels like wood and coal. Three billion people still cook this way, which is linked to around 3.8 million deaths.

Air pollution is not directly fatal, but it does increase the risk of severe illnesses like pneumonia, heart disease and cancer. And while the risk is lower in wealthier nations, air pollution remains a worldwide issue.

Over 40 UK towns and cities have pollution rates exceeding WHO guidelines. This roughly equates to 40,000 premature deaths in Britain per year. Scientists have even linked London’s pollution with spikes in crime.

Nevertheless, progress is being made. Pollution levels in Britain have fallen substantially since the 1970s, and are nothing compared to the days when thick smog enveloped Victorian London. Many US cities have also drastically improved their air quality in recent decades.

Some even foresee pollution-free future cities. Architect Stefano Boeri has unveiled plans for a “forest city” — built of towers covered with twisting foliage which would naturally clean the air.

Until then, more mundane initiatives like cutting congestion and encouraging low emission cars can ease the problem.

How worried about air pollution should we be?


Don’t panic, some say. Certainly, more must be done to tackle air pollution in the places it is most extreme. But pollution levels are falling in many cities, thanks to technology and progressive political thinking. This report reflects how seriously governments and scientists now take the issue — we can trust them to fix it.

That is too complacent, others respond. Even in rich countries, air pollution still poses serious health risks, and citing long-term improvements does nothing to fix the issue. What’s more, technology will only achieve so much in the face of booming populations which swell cities year by year. Urgent action is needed.

You Decide

  1. How worried are you about air pollution?
  2. In 50 years, will the problem be better or worse?


  1. In pairs or small groups, come up with three ways that cities could reduce air pollution. Discuss your ideas with the class. Vote on one idea which you think could have the biggest impact. Could it realistically happen?
  2. Using the resources in “Become an Expert” to start you off, do some research into air pollution specifically in the UK. How bad is the problem? What steps have been taken to address it? Should the government be doing more?

Some People Say...

“The strongest governments on Earth cannot clean up pollution by themselves. They must rely on each ordinary person.”

Chai Jing

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The WHO collects pollution data from over 4,000 cities in 108 countries. It measures the average concentration of particulates called PM10 and PM2.5 (both much smaller than the width of a human hair). These particles can penetrate deep into the cardiovascular system and the lungs, which can cause serious health problems.
What do we not know?
It is not possible to determine the precise number of people dying early due to air pollution — “pollution” is not a legitimate cause of death on death certificates. The WHO’s estimate of seven million premature deaths gives no indication of the age of those included in the statistic, or how “premature” each death was. The estimate expresses the average health risk associated with air pollution, rather than a direct statement of fact.

Word Watch

1.3 million
According to the Association for Safe International Road Travel.
According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Follow the WHO link in Become An Expert to read it for yourself.
Its capital, Ulaanbaatar, is one of the most polluted capital cities on the planet. This has caused soaring rates of pneumonia among children living there.
This figure is based on analysis of the risk associated with certain levels of pollution. It does not mean that 40,000 people die directly from it every year. For an excellent explanation of how this statistic works, see the University of Cambridge link under Become An Expert.
Researchers observed that London’s crime rate is over 8% higher on the most polluted days compared with the least. It is thought that increased pollution can encourage stress hormones to develop in the blood. See the final link under Become An Expert.
See the University of Cambridge link under Become An Expert.

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