In 1990, an estimated 4.8 million people died worldwide from the effects of air pollution. By 2013, that number had grown to 5.5 million. The air that many people around the world are breathing may be dense and filled with toxic particles, but what is crystal clear is that something has to change.
The frightening numbers come from the Global Burden of Disease, Injuries and Risk Factors Study (GBD), an international collaboration of more than 1,000 collaborators from 108 countries. It’s where UBC’s Dr. Michael Brauer, professor in the School of Population and Public Health, has been directing his energies over the past several years, investigating ways in which countries can improve the health of their inhabitants.
Under the GBD study, Brauer and his colleagues have revealed that, although air pollution levels have decreased over the past 20 years in developed, high-income countries, they’re still on the rise globally, due in large part to poverty and economic and industrial development in South Asia, Southeast Asia and China.
India and China alone account for 55 per cent of the deaths caused by air pollution worldwide. In China, the burning of coal contributes most sharply to poor air quality; in 2013 outdoor air pollution from coal alone caused an estimated 366,000 premature deaths in that country.
Cardiovascular disease and strokes lead the death toll from air pollution, followed by lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and respiratory infections.
It’s not just outdoor air pollution, either. Although poor outdoor air quality comes from sources such as vehicle exhaust, power plants, industrial manufacturing and clearing land for agriculture, indoor air pollution stems from household activities such as cooking over open fires or on inefficient stoves. Many people in rural India, for example, cook over fires within their own homes and stoked by animal dung or other biomass. Exposure levels to particulate matter are extremely high in these instances.
Researchers say it’s an urgent global challenge that must be addressed. In the last 50 years, Japan, North America and Western Europe have made great strides in reducing pollution by using cleaner fuels and more efficient vehicles, and by limiting coal burning and putting restrictions on power plants and factories.
However, these same policies and controls must be put into place elsewhere. Developing countries that burn coal, wood and biomass must set aggressive targets in order to keep the deadly numbers from climbing over the next 20 years.
Brauer says it’s vital to “put a future perspective” on the latest data and underscore the personal element in the data: “This research is making air pollution a health issue,” he notes. “Reducing air pollution is an incredibly efficient way to improve the health of a population.”
By underscoring the link between bad air, governments’ actions (or inactions) and everyone’s own personal health, he believes the research “encourages the development and implementation of policies to reduce pollution. This is all about putting air pollution on the map.”
Controlling air pollution becomes a more critical matter in light of the planet’s changing demographics. Even if pollution levels remain where they are now, the global death toll will still rise because the population is aging in nearly every country in the world — we’re only going to become more susceptible to illnesses caused by poor air quality.
Thankfully, UBC researchers are thinking ahead of the curve, developing new innovations and products that help us tread ever more lightly on the earth. For instance, through collaboration with a consortium of Canadian aerospace companies such as Boeing, WestJet, Air Canada and Bombardier, as well as Vancouver-based NORAM Engineering and Constructors, UBC is recycling the tailings of the forestry industry — branches, stumps, roots and sawdust — into aviation fuel.
At UBC’s Clean Energy Research Centre on the Vancouver campus, more than 200 graduate students and 60 faculty are working every day to develop cleaner energy sources, finding sustainable ways to move humans from our current habit of harnessing energy by burning fuel to a post-combustion way of thinking. Through these projects and hundreds more, UBC is showing the world a new path: the path to a healthier future, where cleaner energy sources will help all of us breathe a little easier.