Study estimates human-induced pollution responsible for 2 million deaths annually

A recent study in the Institute of Physics’ publishing’s journal Environmental Research Letters estimated that outdoor pollution caused by human activity attributes to over 2 million deaths each year.

According to ESSIC Associate Research Scientist Dr. Hongbin Yu, fine particle matter (PM2.5) in pollution can damage the body because of its ability to deeply penetrate the human respiratory system. When these particles invade the lungs, they can eventually cause cancer and respiratory diseases such as asthma. Ozone affects the body a bit differently, because it settles directly into the lower respiratory track, where it easily reacts with biomolecules.

“Breathing ozone can result in inflammation of airways, decrements in lung function, susceptibility to infection, and cardiac effects,” Yu said. Although pollution is harmful to everyone, children and the elderly are the most at risk.

According to Yu, some of the biggest causes of human-produced environmental pollution come from daily routine activities, such as driving, cooking, and utilizing heating and cooling systems. Other large-scale causes include power plant use and agricultural clearing.

In order to limit your exposure to dangerous pollutants, Yu recommends avoiding prolonged outdoor activity on days when pollution levels are high, especially if you live in densely populated areas. Pollution also affects certain regions of the country more than others, so people living on the East or West coast should be more cautious than those living in the central and mid-western regions.

The majority of the deaths recorded occurred in regions of East and South Asia, which experience a combination of highly concentrated people and poor air quality.

Other factors to pay attention to are seasonal changes and weather patterns, which can both influence the intensity of air pollution concentration. Summer tends to bring about higher levels of air pollution danger, because warmer temperatures stimulate photochemical processes associated with pollution production, according to Yu.

The most dangerous times of day in terms of pollution density are at night and early in the morning, because that’s when atmospheric layers near the ground are most stable, limiting mixing between layers and therefore trapping pollution close to the ground. Your risk declines if you spend your time outdoors in the afternoon hours, according to Yu.