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Human-Made Air Pollution Causes Two Million Deaths Each Year

First Posted: Jul 12, 2013 10:33 AM EDT

How dangerous is air pollution? It's harmful enough to cause over two million deaths each year. A new study has shown that human-caused outdoor air pollution may be having a major effect on the health of individuals across the globe.

Air pollution can impact human health in a variety of ways. One of the main issues is the fact that it can exacerbate asthma, irritating lungs and triggering attacks. Yet it can also impact healthy adults and children; research has found that people can suffer from chest pain, coughing, nausea and pulmonary congestion after moderate exercise in poor air quality, according to the EPA.

"Our estimates make outdoor air pollution among the most important environmental risk factors for health," said Jason West of the University of North Carolina in a news release. "Many of these deaths are estimated to occur in East Asia and South Asia, where population is high and air pollution is severe."

In order to make their findings, the researchers used an ensemble of climate models to simulate the concentrations of ozone and PM2.5 in the years 2000 and 1850. A total of 14 models simulated levels of ozone and six models simulated levels of PM 2.5.

The research actually found that about 470,000 people die each year because of human-caused increases in ozone. In addition, the scientists discovered that 2.1 million deaths are caused by increases in particulate matter from human activities. Particulate matter are tiny particles that are suspended in the air that can penetrate deep into the lungs, causing cancer and other respiratory disease.

While these findings may be disturbing by themselves, what makes them worse is the fact that climate change can exacerbate the effects of air pollution and increase death rates. Climate change can affect air pollution in many ways; for instance, temperature and humidity can change the reaction rates which determine the formation or lifetime of a pollutant, and rainfall can determine the time that pollutants can accumulate.

"Very few studies have attempted to estimate the effects of past climate change on air quality and health," said West. "We found that the effects of past climate change are likely to be a very small component of the overall effect of air pollution."

The findings are published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

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