What’s going to kill us in 2050? Air pollution — and lots of it

at 03:26 PM ET, 03/15/2012

Get used to it. (ED JONES/AFP)
Air pollution tends to get wildly underrated as a public health concern. Everyone knows malaria is deadly. Or that access to clean water is a problem. And yet, in the next few decades, air pollution will kill far more people than both of those things combined, according to a new report.

On Wednesday, the OECD released its “Environmental Outlook to 2050,” which contained a few spots of cheery news. Humanity is making steady progress against malaria. Worldwide, the number of deaths from the disease are expected to fall by half by 2050. And fewer people will die from unsafe drinking water and poor sanitation in the future. But the number of deaths caused by air pollution — which includes ground-level ozone, particulate matter, and “indoor pollution” — are expected to skyrocket, killing more than 6 million people per year by mid-century. Here’s the chart:

(OECD Environmental Outlook 2050)
The situation is particularly acute in India. In 2010, about 90 people out of every million died prematurely from ground-level ozone, which is formed when emissions from power plants, vehicles and factories react with sunlight. The resulting pollution can “trigger a variety of health problems including chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, and congestion. It can worsen bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma.” And by 2050, according to the OECD, about 130 Indians out of every million are likely to die prematurely from exposure.

Wealthy countries aren’t immune, either, especially as places like the United States and Europe age, given that the elderly are especially sensitive to ozone pollution. While it’s technically feasible to reduce ground-level ozone, these control measures tend to be pricey and controversial — the Obama White House nixed stricter ozone standards last September for this very reason.

Other pollutants, however, could prove much easier to tackle. Take particulate pollution, which the OECD expects will kill 3.6 million people per year by 2050. A lot of lung-damaging particulate matter comes from the burning of fossil fuels. And actions to curb them can prove quite cost-effective. The EPA’s new regulations on mercury, for instance, will reduce U.S. particulate pollution, as coal plants install new scrubbers. That, the agency estimates, will save an estimated 11,000 lives per year by 2016 and deliver between $36 billion to $89 billion per year in health benefits. And all for a cost of $9.6 billion per year.

Another example: The OECD lists “indoor pollution” as a major cause of death in the developing world, a category that includes black carbon soot from biomass-burning cookstoves. This is fixable: Cleaner cookstoves that run on solar power or burn fuel cleanly already exist. Indeed, it’s such a no-brainer notion that even Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) has co-sponsored a bill in the U.S. Senate to aid black-carbon reduction projects abroad.

One last thing to point out, meanwhile, is that cleaning up many of these pollutants will have a complicated effect on climate change — another major environmental problem that the OECD highlights. On the one hand, mopping up ground-level ozone and black carbon is a quick, easy way to limit global warming (black carbon particles, in particular, have a nasty habit of settling in the Arctic, absorbing sunlight and sizzling right through the ice). Yet some particulates actually reflect sunlight back into space, and curbing them might lead to additional warming in the short term. That said, climate scientists tend to find that this all pales besides the effects of greenhouse gases.

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