Air pollution is killing more people every year than smoking, according to research published on Tuesday that called for urgent action to stop burning fossil fuels.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates smoking kills about seven million people a year globally.
The researchers found that in Europe – the key focus of the European Society of Cardiology research – air pollution caused an estimated 790,000 deaths, between 40 and 80 percent of them from cardiovascular diseases such as heart attacks and strokes.
“Since most of the particulate matter and other air pollutants in Europe come from the burning of fossil fuels, we need to switch to other sources for generating energy urgently,” said the study’s co-author Professor Jos Lelieveld of the Max-Plank Institute for Chemistry in Mainz and the Cyprus Institute Nicosia in Cyprus.
“When we use clean, renewable energy, we are not just fulfilling the Paris Agreement to mitigate the effects of climate change, we could also reduce air pollution-related death rates in Europe by up to 55 percent.”
On average, a toxic cocktail of pollutants from vehicles, industry and agriculture shortens the lives of those who die prematurely by 2.2 years, the researchers calculated.
Worldwide, air pollution caused 120 extra deaths in every 100,000 people in a year, with deaths in parts of Europe at an even higher rate of up to 200 in 100,000.
“This means that air pollution causes more extra deaths a year than tobacco smoking, which the World Health Organization estimates was responsible for an extra 7.2 million deaths in 2015,” said senior author Thomas Munzel, a professor at the University Medical Centre Mainz in Germany.
“Smoking is avoidable, but air pollution is not.”
The study, published in the European Heart Journal, focused on ozone and the smallest pollution particles, known as PM2.5, that are particularly harmful to health as they can penetrate into the lungs and may even be able to cross into the blood.
The researchers said new data indicated the hazardous health effect of PM2.5 – the main cause of respiratory and cardiovascular disease – was much worse than previously thought.
They urged a reduction in the upper limit for PM2.5 in the European Union, which is currently set at 25 micrograms every cubic metre, 2.5 times higher than the WHO guideline.