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This is the real life-threatening pandemic — and it’s not coronavirus

You know what’s shortening people’s lives globally, far more than viruses, wars, disease, and smoking? It’s air pollution, according to a new study released today and published in Cardiovascular Research.

According to the European Society of Cardiology:

Professors Jos Lelieveld and Thomas Münzel, of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and the Department of Cardiology of the University Medical Centre Mainz in Mainz, Germany, who led the research, say the findings suggest the world is facing an air pollution ‘pandemic.’

Using a new method of modeling the effects of various sources of air pollution on death rates, the researchers estimated that globally, air pollution caused an extra 8.8 million premature deaths a year in 2015. This represents an average shortening of life expectancy of nearly three years for all persons worldwide.

This is the first study to show the effects of air pollution on deaths according to age, type of disease, and also its effect on life expectancy at the level of individual countries and regions.

Here’s how that compares to other things that shorten life expectancy:

  • Smoking: 2.2 years (7.2 million deaths)
  • HIV/AIDS: 0.7 years (1 million deaths)
  • Parasite or insect-borne diseases: 0.6 years (600,000 deaths)
  • Violence, including wars: 0.3 years (530,000 deaths)

The researchers looked at the effects of air pollution on the following six categories:

  • Lower respiratory tract infection
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Lung cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Cerebrovascular disease leading to stroke
  • Other non-communicable diseases such as high blood pressure and diabetes

They concluded that heart disease and cerebrovascular disease caused by air pollution causes the greatest proportion of shortened lives, at 43% worldwide.

Lelieveld, a co-author of the study, said:

We show that about two-thirds of premature deaths are attributable to human-made air pollution, mainly from fossil-fuel use; this goes up to 80% in high-income countries. Five and a half million deaths worldwide a year are potentially avoidable.

Electrek’s Take

Everyone is worrying about the coronavirus pandemic, yet the real global threat has been staring us in the face for decades: fossil fuels. This is the first study that’s looked at age, type of disease, and effect on life expectancy, but we already knew that exposure to air pollution is a bigger killer worldwide than smoking.

Outdoor particulate pollution kills around 4.2 million people worldwide annually, according to the Lancet and the World Health Organization (WHO).

What’s it going to take to get governments to acknowledge the true problem that’s causing premature human deaths — and stop using fossil fuels?

We’ve got to move to electric vehicles and green energy as quickly as possible. Wash your hands — but immediately — stop idling your car, switch to solar or join a renewable co-op, drive an EV, walk, take public transport, ditch natural gas and coal. Pressure your legislator to stop subsidizing fossil fuels and start subsidizing green energy and renewables research. Our lives depend on it.

Photo: Juniperphoton/Unsplash

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Avatar for Michelle Lewis Michelle Lewis

Michelle Lewis is a writer and editor on Electrek and an editor on DroneDJ, 9to5Mac, and 9to5Google. She lives in St. Petersburg, Florida. She has previously worked for Fast Company, the Guardian, News Deeply, Time, and others. Message Michelle on Twitter or at Check out her personal blog.