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Polluted air more deadly than some diseases

Oxygen is essential for everyone and breathing in polluted air may result in unfavorable results to the human body
The Straits Times - March 27, 2014
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Polluted air more deadly than some diseases A man wearing a mask amid the heavy haze in Beijing. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

One in eight deaths worldwide can be attributed to breathing tainted air, making it the world's largest environmental health risk.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said this in a report released on Tuesday, which also revealed that air pollution killed about seven million people in 2012 - more than Aids, diabetes and road injuries combined.

The toll, a doubling of previous estimates, suggests that reducing pollution inside and outside of homes could save millions of lives in the future, the United Nations health agency added.

Sources of pollution range from cooking fires to diesel engine fumes spewed out by vehicles.

The new estimates show a stronger link between air pollution and cardiovascular diseases such as stroke and heart ailments.

This is on top of its known connection with respiratory disease, which includes chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Dirty air is also blamed for some deaths involving lung cancer and acute respiratory infections.

"The evidence signals the need for concerted action to clean up the air we all breathe," said Dr Maria Neira, head of the WHO's environmental and social public health department.

Labelling the new figure "shocking and worrying", she added: "The risks from air pollution are now far greater than previously thought or understood, particularly for heart disease and strokes."

Poor and middle-income countries in South-east Asia and the Western Pacific region had the largest air pollution-related burden in 2012, with 3.3 million deaths linked to indoor air pollution and 2.6 million deaths to outdoor air pollution.

Indoor pollution is mostly caused by cooking over coal, wood and biomass stoves.

The WHO estimates that around 2.9 billion people worldwide live in homes using wood, coal or dung as their primary cooking fuel.

Outdoors, the air is mainly polluted by transport, power generation, industrial and agricultural emissions and residential heating and cooking.

In the past, the WHO did not take into account the overlap between exposure to both indoor and outdoor pollution, and only assessed urban pollution. Today, satellite imagery has made it easier to assess rural pollution and new knowledge about the health impact of such exposure has enabled a better count.

Research suggests that outdoor air pollution levels have risen significantly, particularly in countries with large populations that are also going through rapid industrialisation, such as China and India.

The WHO's cancer research agency, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, published a report last year warning that the air people breathe is laced with cancer-causing substances and should be classified as carcinogenic.

Dr Carlos Dora, a WHO public health expert, called on governments and health agencies to act on the evidence and devise policies to reduce air pollution, which in turn would improve health and reduce humans' impact on climate change.

He added that transport policies needed a shake-up.

"You can't buy clean air in a bottle," he said. "The air is a shared resource. In order to breathe clean air, we have to have interventions in the areas that pollute air."

The WHO said it plans to release a ranking of the world's 1,600 most polluted cities by the end of the year.

Reuters, Agence-France Presse, Bloomberg News


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