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The Enormous Body Count From Human-Caused Air Pollution

Air pollution around the world is bad enough that it killed 2.1 million people just last year. The problem is worst in East Asia and South Asia, where air pollution levels and population levels are both high.

How bad is the air? Very bad, according to a new study. Up to 2.1 million people died last year as a result of fine particulate matter in the air. Another 470,000 died because of ozone build-up.

The research, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, finds that the problem is worst in East Asia, and northern India, where pollution is rampant. Fine particulates get trapped in the lungs, causing cancer and respiratory disease.

"Our estimates make outdoor air pollution among the most important environmental risk factors for health," says co-author Jason West, a professor at the University of North Carolina. "Many of these deaths are estimated to occur in East Asia and South Asia, where population is high and air pollution is severe."

The study correlates with a previous report which found that outdoor pollution causes 1.2 million premature deaths in China and 620,000 in India. A further 2 million die from indoor pollution, according to the World Health Organization.

There was one somewhat bright piece of good news in the study. The researchers looked at the effect of climate change in exacerbating pollution, but didn’t find much evidence that it makes things work. Nonetheless, the reality is that industrialization is taking its toll—a point that seems to get lost in discussions about the latest economic growth figures.