25 Air Pollution Facts & Statistics

Today, we easily consider fresh air a luxury. Vehicles, factories, waste, chemicals, and domestic activities contribute to air pollution daily. This article covers 27 air pollution facts that help define air pollution and highlight its environmental impact on the planet.

Pollution introduces harmful substances into the environment, and researchers link air pollution to greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, and numerous human health problems. This alarming situation is not without remedy if we put in efforts to improve air quality.

Facts And Statistics About Air Pollution

General Air Pollution Facts
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General facts about air pollution

Air pollution is a cause of global concern. About 90% percent of the world's population breathes air contaminated by dust, smoke, fumes, and other pollutants.

Because we cannot see air, it is not always easy to say when the air in the environment is polluted. Many people are not even aware that they are breathing in polluted air.

It doesn't really matter if we are in or out of our homes, in rural or urban societies. We are always at risk of breathing in air that affects our health negatively. And for those who notice the polluted air when they enter an environment, it can take only a short time to find yourself used to it.

9 in 10 People
Breathe in polluted air1
630 Million Children
Under 5 years old are exposed to air pollution below WHO's quality

Air pollution costs human health

7 Million People
Die yearly as a result of air pollution1

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the US emitted a staggering 68 million tons of air pollution into the atmosphere in 2020 9.

Air pollution is a silent killer. The world health organization says that we record 7 million premature deaths caused by air pollution every year. That means we lose 7 million friends and loved ones to avoidable deaths. Poor air quality can be responsible for stroke, lung cancer, ischaemic heart disease, and respiratory diseases.

In 2016, the WHO estimated air pollution caused 52,000 deaths in children aged 5-15 years old2

A World Health Organisation (WHO) news report in 2016 showed that 11.6% of all global deaths resulted from air pollution3

Every year, we lose millions of lives to this slow and silent killer. And many more suffer serious illnesses that prevent them from living full, healthy lives while consuming their time and money.

The scale of toxic air

The EPA's 2005 assessment estimates that about 14 million people in sixty urban locations have their lifetime cancer risks increased by 100 in a million4

Breathing toxic air exposes people to cancer-causing toxins. Unfortunately, this is not a problem many people take seriously because of the slow manifestation of air pollution's effects on the human body. 

However, science-based evidence shows that exposure to fine particle pollution can cause premature deaths. Elevated ozone levels, volatile organic compounds ( or VOCs), and other emissions from industrial facilities can cause an increase in the frequency of asthma attacks and aggravate lung diseases. Carcinogens from indoor air pollution are responsible for 17% of lung cancer deaths.

Our kids are breathing polluted air

Air pollution is the cause of more than 50% of all cases of acute lower respiratory infection in kids less than five years old2

Air quality is vital for healthy growth and development in kids, amongst other things. Our children's immune systems do not resist polluted air and those of adults.

Therefore, air pollution, poor hygiene, and other climate change hazards more easily impact children. The leading cause of death for kids aged five and under is pneumonia, primarily attributed to inhaling soot caused by indoor air pollution.

In Africa and Asia, researchers attribute a drop in average life expectancy to increased air pollution.

Indoor air pollution

Corn Cooking on Coal
Photo by Debashis RC Biswas on Unsplash
Four Million Premature Deaths
Are caused by indoor air pollution yearly5

Indoor pollution causes health deterioration as smoke and other pollutants inflame the airways and lungs. These pollutants weaken the immune system and reduce the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood. Indoor air pollution alone is responsible for four million premature deaths every year. Research also shows a connection between unsafe indoor air and low birth weight, tuberculosis, cataract, nasopharyngeal and laryngeal cancers.

The black carbon and methane emitted by inefficient stove combustion contribute to climate change. The government and agencies concerned need to make policy changes quickly to increase the population's percentage with access to clean fuels. Without such policy changes, indoor air pollution will only increase.

Solid fuel cooking

3 Billion People
Still use open fires and solid fuels to cook with, contributing to household air pollution5

Meanwhile, inefficient cooking practices cause indoor air pollution, affecting women and their young ones the most. In many places where people undertake cooking by burning fuel, we find women and children most exposed to the resulting pollutants. Cooking with open fires, simple kerosene stoves, coal, and wood releases air pollutants that endanger our health. The crude technology releases soot particles, smoke, and fumes that penetrate the lungs easily and deeply.

If your house has poor ventilation, it can expose you to smoke 100 levels times higher than acceptable fine particles level.

Impacts of air pollution indoors

27% of Yearly Deaths attributable to indoor air pollution result from pneumonia and 45% of all pneumonia deaths in kids less than five years old are attributable to indoor air pollution5

Indoor air pollution increases the risk of pneumonia, stroke, lung cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Of all these, pneumonia is the most occurring illness in both adults and their young ones.

One in four deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in adults in low and middle-income countries results from indoor air pollution5

Vehicle fumes, visible dust, factory smoke, emissions from power plants, and poorly managed landfills are not the only things that pollute the air. Many people in developing countries use kerosene lamps as a source of light and warmth. Low and middle-income earners use these the most, exposing them to indoor air pollution.

In developing countries, there is a lack of good and spacious accommodation. This, coupled with overpopulation, leads to overcrowded households. Low air quality and the quick spread of communicable diseases characterize such living conditions. Air pollution impacts the vulnerable elderly the most; unsafe air worsens their failing health.

Outdoor air pollution

Outdoor Air Pollution
Photo by Mike Marrah on Unsplash
4.2 Million Premature Deaths
Can be attributed to outdoor air pollution yearly6

In 2016, deaths from outdoor air pollution attributable to ischaemic heart disease and strokes were at 58%6

These air pollution facts show that outdoor air pollution is a threat to public health. Air moves from place to place; as such polluted air can pass through areas with clean energy infrastructure.

Air pollution is a global problem that needs worldwide efforts to combat its worst effects.

Air pollution disproportionately affects lower-middle-income countries

91% of deaths caused by outdoor air pollution in 2016 were in low and middle-income countries6

Of the 4.2 million people who die every year because of air pollution, 91% are people from low and middle-income countries. The majority of these deaths occurred in WHO South-East Asia and Western Pacific regions. The facts show middle-income countries suffering from increased air pollution as they have fast industrialized. Coal-fired power plants fueling industrial facilities have exacerbated the problem often with few controls over air quality.

18% of deaths caused by outdoor air pollution in 2016 were attributable to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease6

WHO estimates that life expectancy is lowered by 8.6 months due to outdoor air pollution even if people follow WHO guidelines

Air pollution and public health

Air pollution is a leading contributor to climate change. It also affects public health. Research conducted by WHO's international agency for cancer research in 2013 reports that polluted outdoor air is carcinogenic. It says that humans are the most susceptible to the health-damaging effects of 2.5 microns or smaller particulate matter in dirty air.

Related: 97 Climate Change Quotes to Inspire Action

Fine particulate matter (PM) in the air is a proxy indicator of pollution. These particles measure as small as 3 percent of the diameter of human hair. Particulate pollution is the most overlooked by people and the one that affects their health the most.

Other pollutants like carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and ozone cause damage to the environment. The majority of these pollutants come from burning fossil fuels such as gasoline to fuel our transport, natural gas to heat our homes, and other combustible fuels across business and industry.

Airborne particles and other greenhouse gases can trigger asthma attacks, and scientists have associated them with other respiratory illnesses.

Lung cancer is responsible for about 6% of outdoor air pollution deaths6

91% of the world experiences outdoor air pollution6

Outdoor air pollution is a challenge in both urban and rural areas. It affects high to low-income countries. In 2016, 91% of the world's population lived in places where the air was below the WHO's air quality standards.

Individuals do not have control over most processes and the polluting industries that bring about air pollution. It is up to policy-makers in energy, waste management, transport, and other connected sectors to institute changes to reduce unhealthy air to benefit public health.

Economic costs of air pollution

Air pollution has a $2.9 trillion cost worldwide equating to 3.3 percent of global GDP10

Controlling air pollution: predictions for the future

The World Health Organisation estimates that reducing the annual particulate matter to align with the WHO guidelines could bring air pollution-related deaths down by 15%6

If industries, individuals, and governments work together to reduce air pollution, the people and the environment will greatly benefit. The improved air quality will mean better health for people. There will be a decline in the rate of diseases like stroke, lung cancer, and chronic and minor respiratory disorders. Consequently, premature deaths caused by aggravated pulmonary and cardiovascular diseases will reduce.

Moves toward cleaning up the air we breath

There are several ways to promote better air quality. They include; cleaner transport, energy-efficient homes, eco-friendly power generation, eco-friendly industrial process, and better waste management systems.

Between 2010 to 2016, the percentage of the global population exposed to ambient air pollution dropped from 94.2% to 90%7

While we're still in the depths of the problem, this reduction is an indicator that management solutions applied are working. The Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan, coupled with the transition to cleaner energy, helped decrease PM concentrations in southeastern Asia. The EPA, acting on the Clean Air Act's authority, has reduced lead pollution to meet national air quality standards.

Progress in reducing air pollution

Air quality trends since 1990 show clean air progress, including a 78% Carbon Monoxide reduction in the US8

Between 1970 and 2019, the most common air pollutants’ combined emissions dropped by 77% in the US8

In 1970 the government of the United States implemented the Clean Air Act. Since then, innovators have made technological advances to improve air quality in the US. Progress in reducing air pollution has not stopped. In 2017 the emission of pollutants further dropped by 7%.

The United States is one country that meets the air quality standard for carbon monoxide nationwide.

Presently, particle and ground-level ozone pollution are lower than they formerly were. However, there is a need for further improvement. The level of air pollution presently still has dangerous consequences for our health. Europe and the US have successfully implemented long-term policies that improve air quality and reduce particulate pollution. Regardless, researchers find significant numbers of people remain exposed to polluted areas with unsafe air.

What can we do to accelerate solutions to air pollution?

Whereas governments seem to be making progress, the best thing we can all do is champion our right to breathe clean air. After all, given the impact on human health and the air pollution cost to both our environment and economic wellbeing, the least we should expect is to breathe air free from pollution.

Clean air to breathe should be a fundamental human right. We can all help raise this issue up the agenda of those that can make a difference in the government and industry by having our voices heard. We can also do our small bit by avoiding fossil fuel combustion, ditching our gas-guzzling cars for public transport, and switching to electric cars where affordable. Further, we can use our combined spending power to support brands and companies using clean energy and ethical pollution-free manufacturing.

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Pin Image Portrait Air Pollution Facts & Statistics
3 WHO releases country estimates on air pollution exposure and health impact, World Health Organisation, News Release, 27th September 2016.
5 Household air pollution and health, World Health Organisation, 2018
6 Ambient (outdoor) air pollution, World Health Organisation, 2018
10 Quantifying the Economic Costs of Air Pollution from Fossil Fuels (pdf) Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air. 2020
7 Shaddick, G., Thomas, M.L., Mudu, P. et al. Half the world’s population are exposed to increasing air pollution. npj Clim Atmos Sci 3, 23 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41612-020-0124-2
8 Our Nation's Air EPA, 2019
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