Photo: Michael Davis-Burchat/Flickr
Last week the World Health Organization came out with a study, published in The Lancet, that comes to the sobering conclusion that air pollution kills more people around the world every year than are killed by AIDS and malaria, combined. Where's the outrage?
Looking at stats from 2010, the report found that 3.5 million deaths a year are caused by indoor air pollution, with 3.3 million dead from outdoor air pollution. The total amount is less than the sum of the two figures, the report notes, as there are probably half a million deaths that have been caused by a combination of both factors.
No matter the exact total, better measurements mean we have a significant increase from previous figures for air pollution deaths, which last tallied 3.2 million deaths from air pollution from both sources combined.
For comparison, WHO stats for 2010 show that malaria caused an estimated 655,000 deaths, out of roughly 220 million people getting the illness; AIDS took the lives of an estimated 1.8 million people in the same year.
In other words, just indoor air pollution (mostly caused by wood fires and stoves) or outdoor air pollution alone, each cause more deaths each year than two of the world's most high profile, and most combated, diseases.
Tech exists for cleaner-burning stoves, but wide implementation has been a slow process.
How to cut down on these deaths? It obviously comes down to reducing the source of pollution, but that's easier said than done.
In the case of indoor air pollution, that means replacing older cookstoves that burn wood, dried dung, or some other form of biomass, with newer, more efficient models that both reduce the amount of material burned in them and reduce pollution. This is of course assuming that electric or gas-fired ovens and cooktops are off the table—which is often the case for those people most-affected by indoor air pollution, although initiatives like those pushed by India's solar grandmas are helping bring cleaner cooking to the developing world.
Efforts have been underway for several years to do this, with many attempts to design more efficient replacements. While Hillary Clinton helmed the State Department, a good deal of effort and money was thrown at the problem, to just name one international effort.
Unfortunately swapping out cook stoves is sometimes hampered by habit. One study looked at efforts to do so in Bangladesh. It found that women there—which are disproportionately affected by indoor air pollution—were reluctant to change, preferring to adjust other aspects of their lives to improve the welfare of their families, far before decreasing their exposure to the black soot created by dirty cook stoves.
Replacing these older cook stoves would also have a significant benefit for reducing climate change as well. Though much lower profile than greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, black soot pollution is a large component in increasing global warming. Numerous studies have shown that significant gains in reducing warming could be quickly realized by reducing black soot pollution. Furthermore, reducing black soot could help slow the melting of glaciers, particularly in the Himalayas, where the soot falls on ice, changes the reflectivity and increases melting.
In the case of outdoor air pollution, WHO's Maria Neira told Reuters that increasing access to clean energy is key.
At least 7 million people die from air pollution each year. Why isn't air pollution more of a concern?
"If we increase access to clean energy, the health benefits will be enormous. Maybe the health argument was not used enough," in touting the benefits of low-carbon energy sources versus fossil fuels, Neira said.
I keep sitting with the stats. Even accounting for overlaps in causes of death, at least 7 million people die from air pollution each year. Compared to that, as devastating as any death is, regardless of source, the number of dead from malaria and AIDS just pale in comparison—even compared to 2004, the peak year for AIDS deaths. Why isn't air pollution more of a concern?
I wonder if some of it is related to why there's been a similar level of apparent apathy among the public at large—those not affected, or believe themselves not to be so—about climate change.
Combating malaria and AIDS have a more concrete focal point: Stop the transmission of both diseases; develop either better medicines to treat or vaccinate against the disease, in the case of malaria, or provide a cure, in the case of AIDS. We know how to do these things, even if we're not always successful.
But are there too many moving pieces in preventing air pollution to elicit the same level of passion? Clearly it does create passion in some people, as it does with climate change. But I wonder if because air pollution is a slow motion killer (dramatic incidents aside like recent air pollution spikes in China, or, half a century ago, in London's Great Smog), with the steps that individuals can take protect themselves not always within their control, that it's more difficult to get worked up about.