Story highlights

Residential energy use and agricultural emissions lead causes of air pollution deaths

Highest death rates found in Southeast Asia

By 2050, there could be 6.6 million premature deaths every year worldwide, study says

CNN  — 

The air we breathe outdoors could be harming more people than ever, a new study suggests.

Globally, more than 3 million people die prematurely each year from prolonged exposure to air pollution, according to the World Health Organization. By 2050, it could be 6.6 million premature deaths every year worldwide, a new study predicts.

Chronic exposure to air pollution particles contributes to the risk of developing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases as well as lung cancer, WHO said.

“The total number of deaths due to HIV and malaria is 2.8 million per year,” said Jos Lelieveld, a professor at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany and lead author of the study. “That’s half a million less than the number of people who die from air pollution globally.”

Residential energy emissions – from fuels used for cooking and heating, especially in India and China – had the largest impact on deaths worldwide.

“When most people think of outdoor air pollution, they tend to think of traffic and industry having the largest impact on global premature mortality, not residential energy emissions and agriculture,” Lelieveld said.

The study, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, noted that the highest number of deaths per capita were in the Western Pacific region, followed by the eastern Mediterranean and Southeast Asia.

Air pollution deaths in different areas

The study examined outdoor emission sources in urban and rural environments: residential and commercial energy use, agriculture, power generation, industry, biomass burning, natural causes and land traffic.

Coupling air pollution data with country-specific population and health statistics from WHO, researchers were able to measure the effect different sources of outdoor air pollution had on premature deaths.