PM2.5 Caused 135 Million Premature Deaths In Last Four Decades

Asia had the highest number of early deaths caused by PM2.5 pollution, totalling a staggering 98.1 million.

AsianScientist (Jul. 05, 2024) –A study led by researchers from Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore, found that between 1980 and 2020, fine particulate matter was linked to approximately 135 million premature deaths worldwide. Asia had the highest number of early deaths caused by PM2.5 pollution, totalling a staggering 98.1 million. China and India accounted for 49.0 million and 26.1 million of these deaths, respectively.

Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Japan, too, had significant numbers of premature deaths caused by PM2.5, ranging from 2 to 5 million each. The study was published in Environment International.

PM2.5, or fine particulate matter, denotes particulate matter 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller. These minuscule particles originate from vehicle exhaust, industrial activities and natural occurrences like wildfires and dust storms. Due to their small size, PM2.5 particles can easily enter our lungs through the air we breathe, causing various health issues, particularly for at-risk demographics such as children, the elderly, and individuals with respiratory conditions. It cam also lead to premature deaths. The study defines premature deaths as deaths occurring before the expected time based on the average life expectancy due to causes that are preventable or treatable, such as diseases or environmental factors.

The researchers examined air quality and climate globally and analyzed more than 40 years of data. It examined how specific climate patterns impact air pollution in different regions, offering new insights into the complex relationship between climate and air quality.

The analysis of PM2.5 data for this extensive 40-year research covers the period from January 1980 to December 2020, providing comprehensive details about air quality in particular regions.

To do that, the research team first used NASA satellite data to analyze levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in Earth’s atmosphere and understand its impact on mortality rates. They used information from a data collection overseen by NASA known as MERRA-2 (Modern-Era Retrospective Analysis for Research and Applications, version 2). This collection provides monthly data on the levels of fine particulate matter present on the Earth’s surface.

Next, they assessed statistics on the occurrence and fatality of pollution-related diseases from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation located in the US.  The researchers also studied how climate patterns such as El Niño-Southern Oscillation, Indian Ocean Dipole, and North Atlantic Oscillation weather patterns, which were calculated using indices from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, affected changes in air quality.

The scientists found that the influence of pollution caused by fine particulate matter was exacerbated by the above climate variability events, resulting in a 14 percent increase in untimely fatalities.

The scientists explained that rising temperatures, alterations in wind movements, and decreased rainfall can create still air conditions and the build-up of pollutants in the air during adverse weather occurrences. This leads to increased levels of PM2.5 particles, which can be especially detrimental to human health when breathed in.

They approximated that the combination of the three weather occurrences – El Niño-Southern Oscillation, Indian Ocean Dipole, and North Atlantic Oscillation – leads to roughly 7,000 additional premature deaths worldwide each year.

The scientists also discovered that there have been 363 significant air pollution events globally in the last forty years, averaging nine occurrences each year. The duration of these events varied from two to nine months. All three weather patterns converged in 1994, 1997, 2002, and 2015, affecting the Southeast Asian region the most. These weather patterns exacerbated pollution, leading to approximately 3,100 additional deaths in the region each year. In 2002, there were 15 air pollution events, the highest number recorded, followed by 2004 and 2006, with 14 events each.

“Our findings show that changes in climate patterns can make air pollution worse. When certain climate events happen, like El Niño, pollution levels can go up, which means more people might die prematurely because of PM2.5 pollution. This highlights the need to understand and account for these climate patterns when tackling air pollution to protect the health of the global population,” said Steve Yim, study lead and Associate Professor of NTU’s Asian School of the Environment and Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine (LKCMedicine).

“Our study highlights how climate patterns affect air pollution, and this is crucial for healthcare professionals because it directly impacts public health. The effects of climate change and the environment on human health are not lesser than those of genomics and lifestyle patterns, and they have been increasing over the past decades. By recognising these patterns, healthcare providers can better prepare for potential increases in patients seeking treatment for pollution-related ailments. Additionally, this knowledge underscores the importance of proactive measures to reduce pollution and mitigate its health impacts, ultimately helping healthcare systems manage and alleviate the burden of pollution-related illnesses on communities,” added Joseph Sung, co-author of the study and Dean of NTU’s LKCMedicine.

Source: Nanyang Technological University; Image: Shutterstock

The article can be found at: NTU Singapore-led study estimates that between 1980 and 2020, 135 million premature deaths could be linked to fine particulate matter pollution

Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.




Puja is a multimedia journalist based in Kolkata, India. She writes about social justice, health, policy, LGBTQIA+ issues and culture.

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