for National Geographic News
China, the world's fastest growing economy, has earned another startling superlative: the highest annual incidence of premature deaths triggered by air pollution in the world, according to a new study.
A World Health Organization (WHO) report estimates that diseases triggered by indoor and outdoor air pollution kill 656,000 Chinese citizens each year, and polluted drinking water kills another 95,600. (Related: "China's Pollution Leaving Mountains High and Dry, Study Finds" [March 8, 2007].)
"Air pollution is estimated to cause approximately two million premature deaths worldwide per year," said Michal Krzyzanowski, an air quality adviser at the WHO Regional Office for Europe.
Krzyzanowski worked with WHO to look at costs and casualties of pollution across the globe. He helped the group develop new air quality guidelines that set out global goals to reduce deaths from pollution.
Damaging air pollutants include sulfur dioxide, particulate matter—a mixture of extremely small particles and water droplets—ozone, and nitrogen dioxide. China accounts for roughly one-third of the global total for these pollutants, according to Krzyzanowski. (See a map of China.)
In neighboring India, air pollution is believed to cause 527,700 fatalities a year. In the United States, premature deaths from toxic air pollutants are estimated at 41,200 annually.
The combustion of fossil fuels—whether to power China's many automobiles, its burgeoning factories, or its expanding megacities—is a primary source of outdoor air pollutants.
The burning of coal or charcoal to heat homes, common throughout China, also produces a range of indoor air pollutants. (Related: "China's Boom Is Bust for Global Environment, Study Warns" [May 16, 2005].)
Air pollution can trigger or worsen a wide spectrum of respiratory and cardiovascular ailments.
WHO's air guidelines warn that pregnant women, the elderly, the sick, and young children are especially susceptible to suffering severe effects from high pollution levels.
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