Air pollution now ranks fourth as a leading global risk factor for premature deaths, according to the World Bank, and $225 billion was lost in labour income in 2013.
According to a joint study by the World Bank and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, about 5.5 million lives were lost as a result of diseases associated with outdoor and household air pollution.
“In 2013, exposure to ambient and household air pollution cost the world’s economy some $5.11 trillion in welfare losses,” the report said.
By 2013, about 87 per cent of the world’s population was living in areas that exceeded the air quality guideline of the World Health Organisation, which is an annual average of 10 microgrammes per cubic metre (µg/m3) PM2.5.
Titled The Cost of Air Pollution: Strengthening the economic case for action, the report said that low- and middle-income countries were the worst hit with about 90 per cent of the population being exposed to dangerous levels of ambient air pollution.
Whereas deaths related to ambient air pollution have risen in heavily populated, fast-urbanising regions, the report said that pollution from solid fuels used to cook and heat homes have remained constant despite improvements in health services.
However, diseases attributed to both types of pollution resulted in one in 10 deaths in 2013 — more than six times the number of deaths caused by malaria.
Consequently, the health risk posed by air pollution is the greatest in developing countries. In 2013 for instance, about 93 per cent of deaths and non-fatal illnesses attributed to air pollution worldwide occurred in developing countries.
Even worse, children under the age of five in low- and middle-income countries are 60 times more likely to die from exposure to air pollution than children in high-income countries, the report said.
While pollution-related deaths mainly occur in young children and the elderly, premature deaths of adults resulted in lost labour income.
South Asia lost an equivalent of between one per cent and 0.83 per cent gross domestic product due to lost labour income.
On the other hand, in East Asia and the Pacific where the population is ageing, labour income losses were at 0.25 per cent of GDP, whereas in sub-Saharan Africa, where air pollution impairs the earning potential of younger populations, the annual labour income losses represent the equivalent of 0.61 per cent of GDP.
“Air pollution threatens basic human welfare, damages natural and physical capital and constrains economic growth,” said Laura Tuck the vice president for sustainable development at the World Bank, adding, “We hope this study will translate the cost of premature deaths into an economic language that resonates with policymakers so that more resources are devoted to improving air quality.”
Between 1990 and 2013, total welfare losses due to premature mortality from exposure to air pollution increased by 94 per cent. Damages from exposure to ambient air pollution also rose by 63 per cent in the same period, to $3.552 trillion, while damages from household air pollution from cooking with solid fuels rose by 287 per cent, to $1.516 trillion.
“This report is an urgent call to action,” said Chris Murray, director of Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
“Policy makers in health and environment agencies, as well as leaders in various industries need to address this problem,” he added.