environment health

10 facts about air pollution

This week I’ve been reading a new book called Breathless: Why air pollution matters – and how it affects you. It’s by the science writer Chris Woodford and it’s rather good. Review to come later, but as I’ve been reading, I’ve been struck several times by the scale and scope of air pollution. I thought I’d pull together 10 facts from the many in the book to give a sense of why we need to talk about it a lot more than we do.

  1. Air pollution kills at least 7 million people every year, which is 15 times more people than die from war and violence. These deaths are easily underestimated because the records will cite lung disease or stroke, rather than the underlying pollution, as the actual cause of death.
  2. 90% of people – that’s 6.9 billion people – breathe polluted air every day.
  3. Air pollution chops 6.6% off China’s GDP every year (3% for the US and 2.3% for the UK)
  4. Of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, 18 are in India.
  5. Air pollution kills more people in Africa than childhood malnutrition or poor sanitation.
  6. In the United States, it kills more people than guns and car accidents put together.
  7. Exposure to air pollution divides along racial lines in America, with hispanic and black Americans facing much greater risk.
  8. Other injustices are evident in the way that air pollution disproportionately affects children, the elderly, and the poorest in society, even though they are less likely to contribute to the problem.
  9. Cities can reduce pollution. Beijing famously wrestled with pollution when it hosted the Olympics, but the problem has more than halved since then.
  10. Given the costs of air pollution, it has been calculated that the US Clean Air Act has paid for itself 30 times over, demonstrating that the benefits of clean air massively outweigh the costs of compliance.


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