from Sunday Herald, 16 December 2012
A major new study published on Friday ranks air pollution along with smoking, alcohol, obesity and poor diet as the biggest health risks facing humanity. This is the first time that an environmental threat has been rated as being as serious as “lifestyle” problems.
The study, published in the leading medical journal, The Lancet, involved 486 experts from 50 countries and was led by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. It investigated the “global burden of disease” for 2010.
Most deaths from air pollution are caused in poorer countries by the smoke from burning wood, coal or animal dung for cooking and heating. As many as 3.5 million people are reckoned to die every year from household air pollution, with a further 500,000 dying from the outdoor pollution from open fires, many of them in Asia and Africa.
According to experts, millions more get sick from lung and heart diseases, cancers, and respiratory infections trigged by the pollution. “One of the most alarming findings is that smoke from cooking fires was found to be the largest environmental threat to health in the world today,” said Kirk Smith, an environmental health professor from the University of California, Berkeley.
The estimates in the new study are twice as high as previous figures, which had put the annual global death rate from household air pollution at two million. The increase was “shocking”, according to the United Nations Foundation’s Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, and meant that efforts should be redoubled “to ensure that cooking a meal is a life-enriching, and not life-taking, activity”.
The study also showed that hundreds of thousands of people were dying every year in Europe because of fumes and particles from vehicles, factories and power plants. In 2010 pollution caused 169,000 premature deaths in Eastern Europe and Russia, 166,000 deaths in Western Europe and 95,000 deaths in Central Europe.
“Everyday exposure to outside air pollution in Europe is now recognised as one of the big factors affecting our health,” said Anne Stauffer, deputy director of the Health and Environment Alliance in Brussels.
“For the first time, the global burden of disease assessment has ranked an environmental factor among the more widely discussed lifestyle risk factors, such as tobacco and alcohol.”
In Scotland, a study by the Institute of Occupational Medicine in 2003 concluded that air pollution killed more than 600 people a year in across the central belt. It also caused 1,292 admissions to hospital because of breathing problems, 2,763 new cases of chronic bronchitis and over half a million "respiratory symptoms" amongst adults and children with asthma.