Sustainability Environment

New research finds air pollution contributed to 1.8 million excess deaths in 2019

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Story at a glance

  • Researchers examined levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution and associated mortality trends in more than 13,000 cities between 2000 and 2019 in a modeling study.
  • They found that 86 percent of people living in cities worldwide, or about 2.5 billion people, lived in areas where the air pollution exceeded the World Health Organization’s guidance on the annual average of particulate matter in the air that is safe.
  • Exposure to unhealthy levels of fine particulate matter pollution can increase the risk of premature death from conditions such as cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, lung cancer and lower respiratory infection.

Unhealthy levels of air pollution in cities across the globe led to an excess of 1.8 million deaths in 2019 and contributed to nearly two million cases of asthma among children, according to a pair of new studies published in The Lancet Planetary Health.  

Researchers examined levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution and associated mortality trends in more than 13,000 cities between 2000 and 2019 in a modeling study.  

They found that 86 percent of people living in cities worldwide, or about 2.5 billion people, lived in areas where the air pollution exceeded the World Health Organization’s guidance on the annual average of particulate matter in the air that is safe.  

Researchers found that average population-weighting particulate matter concentration across urban areas was 35 micrograms per cubic meter in 2019, equivalent to seven times WHO guidelines. The study estimates that 61 in every 100,000 deaths in cities was attributable to particulate matter pollution in 2019.  

Exposure to unhealthy levels of fine particulate matter pollution can increase the risk of premature death from conditions such as cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, lung cancer and lower respiratory infection.  


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“The majority of the world’s urban population still live in areas with unhealthy levels of PM2.5,” Veronica Sutherland, researcher from George Washington University and lead author of the study, said in a statement.  

“Avoiding the large public health burden caused by air pollution will require strategies that not only reduce emissions but also improve overall public health to reduce vulnerability,” Sutherland added.  

In a second study, researchers looked at nitrogen dioxide gas, an air pollutant primarily emitted by vehicles, power plants and industrial manufacturing, in the same 13,000 cities. An estimated 1.85 million new pediatric asthma cases were attributed to NO2 pollution from motor vehicle emissions globally in 2019, with two-thirds occurring in urban areas.  

“Our results demonstrate the important influence of combustion-related air pollution on children’s health in cities globally,” Susan Anenberg, co-author of the studies, said in a statement.  

“In places that have effective air quality management programs, NO2 concentrations have been trending downward for decades, with benefits for children’s respiratory health. Even with these improvements, current NO2 levels contribute substantially to pediatric asthma incidents, highlighting that mitigating air pollution should be a critical element of children’s public health strategies,” Anenberg added. 


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