(CN) – Air pollution caused an estimated 8.8 million deaths across the globe in 2015, inching ahead of deaths from smoking, according to a new study Tuesday.
While just 4.5 million deaths were previously blamed on air pollution, that figure should be closer to 8.8 million according to the study published in the European Heart Journal. According to the World Health Organization smoking cigarettes was responsible for 7.2 million deaths in 2015.
Researchers said about 790,000 more deaths in all of Europe and some 650,000 deaths in the 28 EU member states were caused by outdoor air pollution in 2015.
Using atmospheric models to simulate chemical processes from air pollution and how they interact with the land, sea, traffic, agriculture and the energy sector, researchers were able to compare the data with death rates and global exposures.
That also considered a plethora of variables, including population density, age of those exposed to pollution, and their risk factors to several diseases and causes of death.
Professor Thomas Munzel, of the cardiology department at the University Medical Centre Mainz in Mainz, Germany, said there is a well-established link between air pollution and cardiovascular diseases, along with respiratory diseases.
“It causes damage to the blood vessels through increased oxidative stress, which then leads to increases in blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, heart attacks and heart failure,” said Münzel.
One area of focus was fine particles of pollution known as particulate matter, which are less than or equal to 2.5 microns in diameter.
With their new models in place, researchers offered a revised and sobering set of figures. Across the world, air pollution is responsible for 120 extra deaths per year per 100,000 people. In Europe the figure rises to 133 deaths and for the EU it’s 129 extra deaths from air pollution.
When broken down by specific nations, Germany sees 154 extra deaths per 100,000 people – a reduction of 2.4 years in life expectancy. In Italy, 136 extra deaths per 100,000 people occur, or a reduction of 1.9 years. France and the United Kingdom saw reductions in life expectancy of 1.6 years and 1.5 years, respectively.
Air pollution in Poland reduces life expectancy by 2.8 years. In fact, Eastern European countries like Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania and Ukraine saw over 200 extra deaths per 100,000 people. Co-author, Professor Jos Lelieveld, of the Max-Plank Institute for Chemistry in Mainz said the high rate there is explained by a combination of poor air quality and a dense population.
“Although air pollution in eastern Europe is not much worse than in western Europe, the number of excess deaths it caused was higher,” said Lelieveld. “We think this may be explained by more advanced health care in western Europe, where life expectancy is generally higher.”
Researchers say national governments could do more to reduce air pollution, like synching their air quality guidelines with the World Health Organization’s standards. The WHO standards are used by the United States, Canada and Australia, and Munzel said “the EU is lagging a long way behind in this respect.”
Fossil fuels contribute a large amount to air pollution and researchers say alternative sources need to be explored. But Lelieveld said fine dust in the air could also be reduced by limiting agricultural emissions, including the amount of ammonia released from manure and fertilizer which contributes to the formation of fine particles that interact with soot and aerosol components.