By Erin Rode
March 17, 2016
Credit : Flickr user David Holt.

A recently released report on the “global burden of disease” found that air pollution was responsible for over 5.5 million deaths in the year 2013, with most deaths occurring in India and China. The report was conducted by scientists at the University of British Columbia, and discussed last month at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington.

“Air pollution ranks fourth globally as a risk factor for death in the world,” said Michael Brauer, a public health researcher at the University of British Columbia. “It’s one of the big ones.”

Brauer worked with researchers from China, India, and the United States for part of the Global Burden of Diseases Project, which estimated health risk factors worldwide. They found that air pollution contributes to heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, and other ailments at the same level as deadly aggregators such as smoking, high blood pressure, and poor diet.

About 1.6 and 1.4 million people died of air pollution in China and India, respectively. In China, burning coal is a major contributor to air pollution. Qiao Ma, a PhD student at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, found that outdoor air pollution from coal only caused about 366,666 deaths in China in 2013. She also estimated that air pollution will cause between 990,000 and 1.3 million premature deaths in 2030 if drastic reduction targets aren’t put in place.

“Our study highlights the urgent need for even more aggressive strategies to reduce emissions from coal and from other sectors,” said Ma.

Burning wood, dung, and other sources of biomass is a major contributor to air pollution in India. Millions of families, some of the poorest in India, resort to these practices for cooking and heating. This means they are frequently exposed to high levels of particulate matter in their homes.

“India needs a three-pronged mitigation approach to address industrial coal burning, open burning for agriculture, and household air pollution sources,” said Chandra Venkataraman, professor of Chemical Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, in Mumbai, India.

One breakthrough that could alleviate air pollution levels is the Green Climate Fund, which has emerged from international climate negotiations over the past several years. If adequately funded, it could provide $100 billion a year in clean energy investments by 2020.

Brauer considers the Green Climate Fund a “watershed,” and noted that this type of initiative is partially the responsibility of richer countries. Utilizing the fund will require both an increased staff and increased accountability for countries such as the United States.

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