Worldwide, four million premature deaths a year from strokes, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and acute respiratory infections are linked to air pollution, according to the World Health Organization.

“Recent years have seen a justifiable emphasis on the most visible impacts of the climate crisis, namely rising temperatures, droughts, extreme weather events (heat waves, floods and fires) and rising sea levels. But we often fail to realize that the climate crisis also increases air pollution,” Nikolaos Michalopoulos, director of the Institute for Environmental Research and Sustainable Development at the National Observatory of Athens, told TA NEA.

The greatest threat

Citing a study recently published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, he notes that air pollution in its various forms poses a greater threat to human health than war, terrorism, malaria, HIV, tuberculosis, drugs and alcohol combined.

He notes that the study by researchers from the University of Edinburgh, the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and the World Observatory for Planetary Health focuses on global warming, air pollution, and exposure to smoke from wildfires.

But while four million premature deaths are currently linked to air pollution, experts say we can expect that number to increase as the world’s population grows and a larger proportion of that population becomes concentrated in megacities. As it is, almost 60% of the Earth’s population already lives in major conurbations.

According to the European Environment Agency’s latest State of the Environment Report, around 20% of Europe’s urban population live in areas with concentrations of air pollutants that exceed at least one air quality standard set by the European Union to protect human health. As Nikos Michalopoulos points out, in Greece, the number of premature deaths per year linked to air pollution stands at around 12,000, with a reduction in average life expectancy of about a year.

Still more worryingly, the WHO notes that air pollution has a comparatively greater impact on fetuses, who breathe faster than adults and are therefore exposed to a greater volume of pollutants. Unborn babies exposed to air pollution in this way face a greater risk of being born both prematurely and under weight, and of suffering impaired physical and cognitive development in later life.