Around the world, 18,000 people die every day because of air pollution.

The World Health Organization says the number of deaths attributed to air pollution is 6.5 million a year. That’s more than the number of people killed by HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and road injuries combined.

In fact, air pollution is the fourth-largest threat to human health, behind high blood pressure, dietary risks and smoking. It is caused by power generation, industry and transport as well as cooking fuels used inside the home. It is a problem around the world, but some countries are much more affected than others.

Selected primary air pollutants and their sources, 2015
Image: International Energy Agency/WHO

The global picture

Premature deaths caused by air pollution have declined in Europe, the United States and a number of other areas, while they have increased in many countries in Asia and Africa in particular.

The countries with the largest number of premature deaths caused by air pollution are mostly in Asia and Africa. However, when adjusted to take account of the size of a country’s population (i.e. deaths per 100,000 people), the highest rates of mortality from air pollution also span across other parts of the world, such as Eastern Europe.

Georgia tops the International Energy Agency’s table, with nearly 300 deaths per 100,000 in 2012 due to air pollution. Bulgaria is fourth while China ranks sixth with over 150 deaths per 100,000 people.

Mortality rate attributed to air pollution (household and outdoor) by country, 2012
Image: International Energy Agency/WHO

The cost of cooking

Household air pollution was the cause of an estimated 4.3 million premature deaths in 2012, overwhelmingly in areas where solid fuel or kerosene is used for cooking.

By country, the largest numbers of premature deaths were in China with 1.5 million and India with 1.25 million.

A breakdown of the impact of indoor and outdoor air pollution shows that different parts of the world are affected in different ways.

The impacts in Asia and Africa are among the most severe, particularly in the case of household air pollution, while countries in Europe and elsewhere are more a result of outdoor air pollution.

 Total years-of-life-lost attributed to household and outdoor air pollution by region, 2012
Image: International Energy Agency/WHO

The economic toll

The final chart shows the welfare costs of air pollution.

China is estimated to suffer the largest impact followed by India, Russia and the United States.

Image: International Energy Agency/WHO

Inevitably national income levels have an impact on this measure of impact, as the economic cost may appear low in a developing country that has relatively high health impacts and low per-capita income, while the reverse may be true for some developed countries.

This is why the United States appears fourth on the list for welfare costs despite having relatively low levels of air pollution death rates.

The International Energy Agency says technologies now exist to greatly reduce deaths from air pollution and that more effort must be put into their adoption, particularly in developing countries.