New Study: Short-Term Exposure to Air Pollution Is Killing Over a Million People Each Year

Air Pollution City Concept Illustration

A groundbreaking study highlights that short-term exposure to PM2.5 air pollution causes over one million deaths globally each year, with the highest impact in Eastern Asia. It calls for urgent targeted interventions to reduce the health risks associated with air pollution spikes. Credit:

Annually, over a million deaths worldwide are associated with short-term exposure (ranging from hours to days) to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in the air.

Every year, over one million people worldwide lose their lives due to short-term exposure (ranging from hours to days) to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) found in air pollution, according to a recent study. Eastern Asia accounts for more than half of these global fatalities linked to brief encounters with PM2.5.

To date most studies have focused on the health impacts of living in cities where pollution levels are consistently high, ignoring the frequent “spikes” in pollution that can impact smaller urban areas that occur for instance landscape fires, dust, and other intermittent extreme air-pollution concentration events.

The Monash University study, looking at mortality and pollution levels of PM2.5 in over 13,000 cities and towns across the globe in the two decades to 2019, is published today in The Lancet Planetary Health.

Study Findings and Significance

Led by Professor Yuming Guo, the study is important because it is the first to look at short-term exposure globally – rather than the long-term impacts of persistent exposure such as for people living in cities with high pollution levels.

The researchers found that breathing in PM2.5 for even a few hours, and up to a few days, results in more than one million premature deaths occurring worldwide every year, particularly in Asia and Africa, and more than a fifth (22.74%) of them occurred in urban areas.

According to Professor Guo, the short-term health effects of being exposed to air pollution have been well documented, “such as the megafires in Australia during the so-called Black Summer of 2019–20 which were estimated to have led to 429 smoke-related premature deaths and 3230 hospital admissions as a result of acute and persistent exposure to extremely high levels of bushfire-related air pollution,” he said.

“But this is the first study to map the global impacts of these short bursts of air pollution exposure.”

Yuming Guo

Professor Yuming Guo. Credit: Monash University

The authors add that because of the high population densities in urban areas together with high levels of air pollution, “understanding the mortality burden associated with short-term exposure toPM2.5 in such areas is crucial for mitigating the negative effects of air pollution on the urban population.”

According to the study:

  • Asia accounted for approximately 65.2% of global mortality due to short-term PM2.5 exposure
  • Africa 17.0%
  • Europe 12.1%
  • The Americas 5.6%
  • Oceania 0.1%

The mortality burden was highest in crowded, highly polluted areas in eastern Asia, southern Asia, and western Africa with the fraction of deaths attributable to short-term PM2.5 exposure in eastern Asia was more than 50% higher than the global average.

Most areas in Australia saw a small decrease in the number of attributable deaths, but the attributable death fraction increased from 0.54% in 2000 to 0.76% in 2019, which was larger than any other subregions. One potential reason could be the increasing frequency and scale of extreme weather-related air pollution events, such as bushfire events in 2019.

The study recommends that – where health is most affected by acute air pollution – implementing targeted interventions—such as air-pollution warning systems and community evacuation plans—to avoid transient exposure to high PM2.5 concentrations could mitigate its acute health damages.

Reference: “Estimates of global mortality burden associated with short-term exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2·5)” by Wenhua Yu, Rongbin Xu, Tingting Ye, Michael J Abramson, Lidia Morawska, Bin Jalaludin, Fay H Johnston, Sarah B Henderson, Luke D Knibbs, Geoffrey G Morgan, Eric Lavigne, Jane Heyworth, Simon Hales, Guy B Marks, Alistair Woodward, Michelle L Bell, Jonathan M Samet, Jiangning Song, Shanshan Li and Yuming Guo, March 2024, The Lancet Planetary Health.
DOI: 10.1016/S2542-5196(24)00003-2

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