The Ultimate Killer: Pollution Deadlier Than War, Terrorism, and Major Diseases

Air Pollution City Concept Art

Researchers reveal that pollution is a greater health threat than that of war, terrorism, malaria, HIV, tuberculosis, drugs, and alcohol combined. The study, involving global experts, examines traditional and lesser-known pollutants, advocating for better monitoring and awareness to mitigate cardiovascular impacts. Immediate action and broad public health campaigns are recommended to confront this escalating crisis. Credit:

Manmade pollutants and climate change contribute to millions of deaths from cardiovascular disease each year, warn a coalition of leading scientists.

A new series published today (June 3) in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology highlights how pollution, in all its forms, is a greater health threat than that of war, terrorism, malaria, HIV, tuberculosis, drugs, and alcohol combined.

The researchers focus on global warming, air pollution, and exposure to wildfire smoke. They also highlight the lesser-known drivers of heart disease including soil, noise and light pollution, and exposure to toxic chemicals. The team includes researchers from the University of Edinburgh, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, Global Observatory on Planetary Health Boston College, Centre Scientifique de Monaco, University Medical Centre Mainz, and the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute.

Urgent Need for Better Monitoring

They say there is an urgent need to improve the monitoring of these pollutants to identify communities most at risk, and better understand how exposure to specific pollutants raises the risk of cardiovascular disease at the individual level.

Professor Jason Kovacic, Director and CEO of the Australian-based Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, says there needs to be far greater recognition of the dangers of pollution and the role it plays in causing around nine million deaths each year globally.

Professor Kovacic says: “Every year around 20 million people worldwide die from cardiovascular disease with pollutants playing an ever-increasing role.

“Pollutants have reached every corner of the globe and are affecting every one of us. We are witnessing unprecedented wildfires, soaring temperatures, unacceptable road noise and light pollution in our cities, and exposure to untested toxic chemicals in our homes.

Various Pollution Impacts on Health

“Our bodies are being bombarded with pollutants from every angle and they are taking a toll on our heart health.  The evidence suggests that the number of people dying prematurely because of these very different forms of pollution is far higher than currently recognized.”

Pollutants are known drivers of cardiovascular disease, but they affect the body in different ways. Smoke and other toxins can be directly inhaled deep into the lower respiratory tract and reach the blood and then be transported to other organs and throughout our bodies. They can cause oxidative stress which can damage cells and organs including the heart.

Other pollutants like noise and light pollution can affect sleep patterns, drive inflammation and lead to an increase in blood pressure and weight gain. Extreme heat can also lead to dehydration, decreased blood volume, increased cardiovascular strain, and acute kidney failure.

Gaps in Understanding and Future Directions

Professor Kovacic adds: “Whilst many of these biological mechanisms are known, we still have a huge gap in our understanding of the link between pollutants and heart disease.

“There are hundreds of thousands of chemicals that haven’t even been tested for their safety or toxicity, let alone their impact on our health. We also need to discover if there are other risk factors that make people more susceptible – such as pre-existing conditions, lifestyle factors or where they live.”

Professor Kovacic and the other authors say that in the future, people will be routinely tested for exposure to more pollutants – just like children are currently tested for lead exposure in the USA.

The authors note that while the environmental crisis is imminent, and impact on health ever more pressing, the impetus for change appears sporadic.  “Urgent action is required as climate change strides forward and pollution infiltrates the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, and the places we live in,” they write.

The team of researchers make a series of recommendations including:

  1. Calling for the implementation of heart-healthy changes to city design such as increasing tree cover, safe means of active travel and reduced use of vehicles.
  2. Ending subsidies to the fossil fuel industry to enable more investment in renewables and cleaner energy production.
  3. Public health campaigns about the dangers of air pollution.
  4. Medical education to better reflect the growing dangers of pollutants.

Key statistics:

  • Outdoor and indoor air pollution combined, are associated with over seven million premature deaths per year, of which over 50% are ttributable to cardiovascular causes, principally ischemic heart disease and stroke.
  • A fifth of all cardiovascular deaths are caused by air pollution.
  • During heat waves, the risk of heat-related cardiovascular mortality may increase by more than 10%.
  • In the USA there has been a 77% increase in exposure to wildfire smoke since 2002.
  • Globally, wildfire smoke has been estimated to be responsible for 339,000 to 675,000 premature deaths per year.
  • Over 300,000 new synthetic chemicals have been manufactured since 1950, and the human safety profile of many of these chemicals is unknown.
  • In Europe it is estimated 113 million people are affected by long-term day-evening-night traffic noise levels of at least 55 dB(A).


“Environmentally Not So Friendly: Global Warming, Air Pollution, and Wildfires: JACC Focus Seminar, Part 1” by Mark R. Miller, Philip J. Landrigan, Manish Arora, David E. Newby, Thomas Münzel, and Jason C. Kovacic, 3 June 2024, Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
DOI: 10.1016/j.jacc.2024.03.424

“Water, Soil, Noise, and Light Pollution: JACC Focus Seminar, Part 2” by Mark R. Miller, Philip J. Landrigan, Manish Arora, David E. Newby, Thomas Münzel, and Jason C. Kovacic, 3 June 2024, Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
DOI: 10.1016/j.jacc.2024.03.421

2 Comments on "The Ultimate Killer: Pollution Deadlier Than War, Terrorism, and Major Diseases"

  1. Clyde Spencer | June 3, 2024 at 12:36 pm | Reply

    And yet, while there was a notable decline during the COVID pandemic, human longevity has been increasing generally for decades and it isn’t just in First-World countries. It would seem that there are tradeoffs. Much of the pollution is a result of manufacturing things that provide us with a longer, more satisfying life style. So, there is the old philosophical question: “Which is better, a long miserable life or a shorter more satisfying life?”

  2. Charles G. Shaver | June 4, 2024 at 5:34 am | Reply

    Not their faults, of course, but just another ignorant and incompetent ‘know-it-all’ study by people who don’t yet know to factor-in nearly subclinical non-IgE-mediated food allergies (e.g., Arthur F. Coca, MD; by 1935) aggravated (or not) with officially (FDA in the US) approved food poisoning (e.g., soy, MSG, HFCS and TBHQ, minimally) and excessive related-resultant medical errors (e.g., US; Johns Hopkins researchers, May of 2016). How would I know? I lived and worked in the Los Angeles, CA, area during some of the worst of the smog (e.g., stinging watery eyes) and from 1981 forth my adulterated food related complaints (e.g., MSG; meal by meal; chronic fatigue, generalized aches, pains and muscle weakness, serious mood swings and high serum uric acid and sluggish metabolism, minimally) stayed with me when I traveled and eventually changed from an urban California to a rural Wisconsin lifestyle. Yes, pollution is a growing problem but not nearly the “ultimate killer” that officially approved commercially prepared toxic adulterated food products and professional healthcare provider ignorance are.

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