A new study has raised the disturbing question of whether we are substantially under-estiminating the annual death toll from air pollution, which currently stands at around 3.4 million a year. The reason is the failure to measure the lethality of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), emitted during fossil fuel burning.
The fact that we underestimate the deaths seems clear. Current estimates focus on deaths linked to fine particles, less than 2.5mm in diameter (PM2.5) have been estimated.
I have discussed before how people still do not associate air pollution with real numbers of fatalities. When we debate pollution controls, we measure concrete numbers of jobs and taxes but rarely put a figure on the resulting deaths associated with rising pollution. Indeed, those numbers are rising. The 3.4 million deaths found by the Global Burden of Disease study from the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington in Seattle was an increase from 3 million in 1990. That is just from outdoor pollution. When you add indoor pollution, the number rises to seven million a year according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
In Europe alone, some 500,000 people die prematurely as a result of air pollution every year without even considering N02. It seems to me that, whatever we decided about the acceptable levels of pollution, we should be unified in our demand for more accurate and holistic figures of the estimated cost in health and fatalities. There are real health impacts associated with air pollution that are left as mere generalities in our public debate. The lack of solid figures makes the cost-benefit arguments rather artificial and superficial. It also suggests that, putting aside the need to address global warming, pollution abatement has direct, measurable and immediate benefits for the population at large.