Global Health Effects from Particulates and Indoor Air Pollution

In a new report: State of Global Air 2018, a Health Effects Institute Special Report, we have new data on deaths from fine particles, and from indoor fuel burning. Their website is The data are from 2016.

A comparative list of the largest sources of death was published from Science Magazine, from the 2018 study. Over 95% of people worldwide are breathing polluted air over the minimum standards. The “Inhaling fine particles” and “Inhaling smoke from fuel burned indoors” are deaths from outdoor and indoor air pollution, respectively. Their total is 6.7 million, which would place them as second in the list.

High blood pressure: 10.5 million

Smoking: 6.3 million

High blood glucose level: 5.6 million

High body mass index: 4.5 million

High total cholesterol: 4.4 million

Inhaling fine particles: 4.1 million

Alcohol use: 2.8 million

Inhaling smoke from fuel burned indoors: 2.6 million

Impaired kidney function: 2.6 million

Diet low in whole grains: 2.5 millions

The “Inhaling fine particles” is called “ambient particulate matter” in the report. It is the fine particulate matter called PM2.5, or particles less in size than 2.5 micrometers. The WHO standard for PM2.5 is set at 10 micrograms per cubic meter. The estimate is that 95% of the world population lives in areas that exceed this standard. 58% live in areas exceeding 35 micrograms per cubic meter. 69% live in areas exceeding 25 micrograms per cubic meter, and 85% live in areas exceeding 15 micrograms per cubic meter. The most affected populations are in Africa and the Middle East, from dust, and India and China.

For inside air pollution, 34% of the world population, or 2.45 billion people are exposed to it. The largest numbers of exposed people are in India with 560 million, or 43%, and in China, with 416 million or 30%. Nigeria and Bangladesh are next, with about 130 million each, at 71% and 81%, respectively.

At a more complex level, there is a measure of life shortening Disability Adjusted Life Years, or DALYs. This is the sum of years lost to an early death, plus years living disabled by a disease or a pollutant. For those over 70 years of age, pollution contributed to 1.8 million deaths, and 22 million DALYs. This means roughly that those dying of pollution lost 12 years of their lives, or those disabled suffered for 12 years.  For those between 50 and 69 years, pollution contributed to 1.3 million deaths, and 37 million DALYs.  This roughly means that these younger people lost 28 years of their lives or suffered this long, or that many more people suffered less years.

For scale, we note that 55 million people die per year.  So the 6.7 million that die from air pollution is a large 12%.  An almost equal amount, 6.3 million, die each year from smoking.  While it is addictive, the US has made strides in reducing smoking.  It is cheaper to reduce smoking than to replace power plants with clean ones or with clean power, and even to equip with kerosene and stoves all who use biomass for heating and cooking.

Since in our past air pollution articles we have used the color-coded air quality index AQI, we have to connect the WHO PM2.5 concentrations with this index.  The upper limits in the color-coded categories are:

Green, 0-50 good:  12 micrograms/meter^3

Yellow, 51-100 moderate:  35.5 micrograms/meter^3

Orange, 101-150 unhealthy for sensitive groups:  55.5 micrograms/meter^3

Red, 151-200 unhealthy:  150.5 micrograms/meter^3

Purple, 201-300 very unhealthy:  250.5 micrograms/meter^3

Maroon, 300-400 hazardous:  350.5 micrograms/meter^3

Maroon, 400-500 :  500.5 micrograms/meter^3

The percentages given before were for 10, 15, 25, and 35 micrograms/meter^3.  Those just cover the green and yellow ranges.  The Los Angeles area ranges from orange to occasional reds, or around 55 micrograms/meter^3.  We have shown air quality maps of China and India with Maroon ranging from 300 to 500 in AQI, or 250-500 micrograms/meter^3.  Our air pollution articles are listed in the blog index under Air Quality and Smog Worldwide.  We prefer the colored AQI index since they go to ranges 10 times worse than the State of Global Air data.


About Dennis SILVERMAN

I am a retired Professor of Physics and Astronomy at U C Irvine. For a decade I have been active in learning about energy and the environment, and in lecturing and attending classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at UC Irvine.
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