Researcher predict how many people will die from air pollution in future
Air pollution, caused by various sources such as factory emissions, vehicle exhaust, and cruise ship engines, poses a significant threat to human health. Research has shown that living near major roads increases the risk of premature death by 20%.
In recent years, many Western countries have made efforts to reduce air pollution through measures such as particulate filters and transitioning away from highly polluting energy sources. Denmark, for example, has managed to reduce fine particle emissions by 48% since 1990.
Despite these advances, however, a study by Ulas Im of Aarhus University in collaboration with NASA suggests that more people will die prematurely from particulate air pollution in the future. The study is published in the journal Environmental Research.
The study uses a global model that incorporates climate change, particle emission reduction measures, and changes in population composition. The results indicate a bleak picture, particularly for Asian countries.
"Even if they reduce air pollution significantly in Asia, the mortality rate will still be high. This is because their populations are aging. And you become more vulnerable to pollution with age," Ulas Im says.
Extremely complicated calculations
The joint project between Aarhus University and NASA combines their respective technologies: a highly advanced climate model from NASA and a comprehensive model of air pollution and human health from Aarhus University. By running this hybrid model on the Aarhus University supercomputer, three scenarios were developed to assess the future impact of air pollution on human health.
"We feed the model three different scenarios: one in which most of the world continues to regulate and try to limit air pollution; one in which we do even more than we do today; and finally, one in which we do less", he says.
But even in the most optimistic of the three scenarios, the outcome turned out to be bleak, especially for Asia.
"Although China has done a lot to reduce air pollution in recent decades, air pollution will have a terrible impact in the future. Even if they intensify their efforts. This is due to the ageing of their population. A larger part of the population it will just be more vulnerable," he says.
Regardless of the most optimistic scenario, the results paint a bleak picture, especially for Asia. Im stresses that even with China's substantial efforts to reduce air pollution, the future impact will remain severe due to an aging population. The model considers fine particles (PM2.5) and ozone, which are harmful to the lungs. The fine particles go deep into the lungs and cause breathing difficulties, while the ozone can cause chest pain and respiratory problems.
Lingering Threat of Air Pollution
Unfortunately, the damage caused by air pollution is already underway. Even in the most ambitious scenario, involving significant global efforts to reduce pollution, the model predicts an annual death toll of four million people. The aging of the population in Asia makes it difficult to prevent these deaths, as air pollution acts as a slow killer.
The damage inflicted on people's health has already been done, making it impossible to reverse the high mortality rate by reducing emissions alone. Unlike carbon dioxide, however, airborne particles dissipate relatively quickly when emission levels are limited.
While cities bear a significant share of air pollution due to the concentration of vehicles, factories, and power plants, rural areas are not immune. Although cities have more fine particulate matter, they tend to have less ozone due to decay caused by emissions from factories. On the other hand, ozone thrives in the field, where there are fewer fine particles. Therefore, air pollution affects both rural and urban areas, and ozone poses a risk to lung health even in seemingly clean rural settings.
The study authors hope these calculations will force politicians around the world to take the issue of air pollution more seriously. They advocate for tighter limitations on air pollution in both urban and rural areas based on the figures and findings of their research.
Air pollution in the countryside as well
Cities are responsible for a substantial part of air pollution. This is where there are most of the cars, factories and power plants; and this is where the planes and cruise ships land. But this doesn't necessarily mean that the air will be clean once it hits the field.
“There are more fine particles in the air in cities. But there is less ozone. In the field it is the other way around. Here there are less fine particles and more ozone. This is because, in cities, ozone decomposes due to emissions from factories, while it thrives in the countryside," says Ulas Im.
So, we are affected by air pollution both in the countryside and in the cities. Even if the air feels nice and clean, it can still be full of ozone, which is also harmful to our lungs.
“So it is false to think that rural areas are free of air pollution, although it is still healthier to live in the countryside,” he says. "We hope that our calculations will lead politicians around the world to take the problem even more seriously. We hope that they will use the figures to make decisions on how to further limit air pollution, both in the countryside and in the cities."
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