The latest study on air quality reports that air pollution is killing three million people prematurely each year. In Australia, it's estimated that air pollution accounts for 280 premature deaths per year, of which almost 100 are due to biomass burning emissions.
Scientists from the study, published in the journal Nature, used global atmospheric chemistry obtained from satellite data to understand the global spread of air pollutants. They looked at seven emission source categories in both urban and rural environments in order to obtain a more realistic prediction of the health effects caused by very high concentrations of particulate pollutants.
Read on for our breakdown on some of the important findings from their study.
What is causing the air pollution?
The authors of the study say the main pollutants in the air are ozone and fine particulate matter, or PM2.5 (i.e. particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter) produced from heating and cooking.
The sources of air pollution were assessed in seven categories - residential and commercial energy use, agriculture, power generation, industry, biomass burning, land traffic, and natural sources - and findings reveal that the presence of these different sources varies regionally as well.
The residential and commercial use of energy - small sources used for heating and cooking, waste disposal, and diesel generators - are responsible for roughly one-third of premature deaths globally.
The contribution of this to deaths in China is even more alarming - the study says that in China alone, pollutants from solid fuel such as coal and biomass used for heating and cooking, local waste disposal and diesel generators account for 40% or 1.36 million deaths.
In Asia, residential and commercial use of energy is the largest contributor, accounting for between 50 to 70% of deaths in India and other Asian nations.
Another major contributor of air pollution is natural sources - often dust and dirt.
Natural sources are actually the largest contributor to mortality in northern Africa and the Middle East, and a leading source in Central China.
When it is assumed that particles have a single toxicity value, natural sources are responsible for about one-sixth of air pollution mortality.
If differential toxicity is assumed (one where fine carbonaceous particles are five times more toxic) natural sources account for only about one-tenth of air pollution induced mortality, which is more of what we might expect.
The third largest source category contributing to premature deaths is power generation by fossil fuel fired plants. These plants release toxic chemicals such as SO2 and NOx. Power plant emissions are an important contributing factor in the US, Russia, Korea, and Turkey.
In some countries, emissions from traffic and power generation were linked to premature deaths, while in the eastern part of US, Europe, Russia and East Asia, farming practices, including chemicals from fertilisers were the largest contributors.
In an interview with News Australia, Associate Professor Adrian Barnett from Queensland University of Technology said that the paper failed to fully consider traffic pollution, the main cause of air pollution in Australia.
How does this pollution affect us?
Based on their projections, the study's authors predict that premature mortality from outdoor air pollution could double by 2050, with 6.6 million premature deaths forecast globally per year, including large increases in Southeast Asia and the western Pacific.
These air pollutants can influence and increase an individual's likelihood of developing a number of diseases, especially respiratory illnesses.
PM2.5 is estimated to have led led to more than 3.2 million premature deaths globally — and scientists predict that this figure could go as high as 6.6 million by 2050.
Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany say that outdoor air pollutants can penetrate deep into our lungs and contribute to serious diseases with long term health impacts.
The study did not examine Australia, but Professor Jos Lelieveld, director of the Atmospheric Chemistry Department at the institute and lead author of the study, believed around 280 people died early each year as a result of air pollution.
What can we do about this?
Although the study's authors predict that premature mortality rates could double by 2050, they also add that by reducing exposure and lowering indoor exposure, we could save lives.
A million lives could be saved every year by reducing exposure and 3.54 million lives per year could be saved by lowering indoor exposure.
As a start, they recommended countries switch to cleaner fuels or electricity.
For governments, it's really time to adopt policies and legislation to help minimise air pollution from all sources, particularly PM2.5.
At home, we should take steps to lower indoor exposure to sources of air pollution, especially when living with the elderly or the young as they are more susceptible to illnesses caused by air pollution.
Reducing the source of indoor air pollutants are crucial, and steps like allowing proper ventilation, reducing use of household cleaners that cause indoor air pollution, and adjusting stoves and heaters regularly will help.
But for some homes, apartments or offices, this is difficult to control due to lack of windows for ventilation or poor building design. In these cases, investing in a HEPA air purifier can be highly beneficial as HEPA filters can remove particles as fine as 0.3 microns in size.
There are many easy ways to reduce indoor air pollution, such as those detailed in our previous post 4 Ways to Improve Indoor Air Quality.
Also, check out our recent posts on common household cleaners linked to indoor air pollution and houseplants that improve indoor air quality.
The contribution of outdoor air pollution sources to premature mortality on a global scale http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v525/n7569/full/nature15371.html
Study suggests air pollution is killing three million people per year prematurely http://www.news.com.au/technology/environment/study-suggests-air-pollution-is-killing-three-million-people-per-year-prematurely/story-fnjwvztl-1227532065192
New global data suggests air pollution kills 10 million people per year http://arstechnica.com/science/2015/09/new-global-data-suggest-air-pollution-kills-10-million-people-per-year/