The contribution of outdoor air pollution sources to premature mortality on a global scale?

11951739_10153586149577350_1851664902435380323_o Lelieveld et al., Nature 525, 367–371 (17 September 2015) doi:10.1038/nature15371: The contribution of outdoor air pollution sources to premature mortality on a global scale.

Here's the abstract:

Assessment of the global burden of disease is based on epidemiological cohort studies that connect premature mortality to a wide range of causes1, 2, 3, 4, 5, including the long-term health impacts of ozone and fine particulate matter with a diameter smaller than 2.5 micrometres (PM2.5)3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. It has proved difficult to quantify premature mortality related to air pollution, notably in regions where air quality is not monitored, and also because the toxicity of particles from various sources may vary10. Here we use a global atmospheric chemistry model to investigate the link between premature mortality and seven emission source categories in urban and rural environments. In accord with the global burden of disease for 2010 (ref. 5), we calculate that outdoor air pollution, mostly by PM2.5, leads to 3.3 (95 per cent confidence interval 1.61–4.81) million premature deaths per year worldwide, predominantly in Asia. We primarily assume that all particles are equally toxic5, but also include a sensitivity study that accounts for differential toxicity. We find that emissions from residential energy use such as heating and cooking, prevalent in India and China, have the largest impact on premature mortality globally, being even more dominant if carbonaceous particles are assumed to be most toxic. Whereas in much of the USA and in a few other countries emissions from traffic and power generation are important, in eastern USA, Europe, Russia and East Asia agricultural emissions make the largest relative contribution to PM2.5, with the estimate of overall health impact depending on assumptions regarding particle toxicity. Model projections based on a business-as-usual emission scenario indicate that the contribution of outdoor air pollution to premature mortality could double by 2050.

There's also a press release: More deaths due to air pollution: Air pollution could claim 6.6 million lives by 2050. What I want to complain about1 is the last sentence of the abstact, and the subheading of the press release. Otherwise, it all seems fair enough. The press release sets the scene for the error with Surprisingly, the largest sources of air pollution are not industry and transport but small domestic fires and agriculture. That's not a surprise to anyone who has been following such things; the high mortality from terrible indoor pollution from cooking fires is well known. I assume they're talking about indoor cooking fires, but I don't knowhow they reconcile that with the "outdoor" word in their title.

So the error is the obvious one: you don't expect such deaths to scale with BAU emissions scenarios. Quite the reverse: as people get richer under BAU you expect less indoor cooking fires, and hence fewer deaths.

The finding noted in the press release, Vehicle emissions cause twice as many deaths as traffic accidents in Germany, is interesting too.


1. As long term readers will have realised some time ago, this blog is primarily for complaining about things.

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My reading is that their BAU scenario refers to the emissions of particles they have studied, not the greenhouse gas emissions we talk about in relation to climate change.

[Its a thought, but what makes you say so? Are you reading the paper text (which I haven't) or the abstract? The natural interpretation of the text I've bolded is std.bau, not a made-up one -W]

Counting "deaths" is an idiotic and facile thing to do in the first place. We all die eventually. There's a world of difference between some old sick person dying a few days or weeks early, and someone with most of their life ahead of them being cut down in their prime.

By James Annan (not verified) on 18 Sep 2015 #permalink

I assume they’re talking about indoor cooking fires, but I don’t knowhow they reconcile that with the “outdoor” word in their title.

Their particulate matter concentrations come from a global atmospheric chemistry model so they can only really be talking about outdoor pollution. Small domestic fires apparently are a large contributor to outdoor pollution - these places presumably have chimneys, and domestic can be outdoors too e.g, barbecues.

If they haven't accounted for overlap with deaths due to indoor exposure that could be a problem with the conclusion regarding deaths due to outdoor pollution. I would assume they have at least attempted to though, given their specified focus on 'outdoor'.

> the emissions of particles they have studied,
Aerosol particulates, PM of various sizes, widely studied
> not the greenhouse gas emissions
Coal and diesel burning
> these places presumably have chimneys
Look at the imagery online. Most don't have chimneys, nor solid doors or windows. There's little or no "indoor air" versus "outdoor air" -- walls and a roof keeping the rain off do little or nothing to contain smoke.

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 18 Sep 2015 #permalink


Forgot to add 'and/or doors, windows'.

Regarding outdoor vs. indoor: "Residential and commercial energy use (RCO) is the largest source category worldwide, contributing nearly one-third, and almost a factor of 2 more under the alternative assumption of differential toxicity. Note that this only refers to mortality by outdoor exposure to this source. Our estimate of 1.0 million deaths per year by RCO is in addition to the 3.54 million deaths per year due to indoor air pollution from essentially the same source."

[Hmm, interesting and odd -W]

Regarding premature deaths: yes, I agree that Quality-adjusted-life-years-lost would be a better metric, but my understanding was that "premature death" is usually corrected to deal with the "harvesting" effect, so I'd guess the paper wouldn't be counting people who are in the days to weeks early category (a year or two, sure, but not days).

Regarding assumptions regarding future residential emissions in the BAU scenario... even when looking at the underlying projections paper (Pozzer et al., I can't figure out what they were doing, though I suspect they scale with population. But the lack of mention seems like a rather significant oversight, given the importance of that sector.

So, this would explain the 30 year difference in life expectancy in a place like the greater metropolitan St. Louis MO USA area, where a well-to-do WHITE community lives into their mid-80's and a poor-to-do BLACK community lives into their mid-50's?

Oh, wait, that's a different grossly assumptive economic model, based on the pure fiction of "white flight" or so I;ve been told by the Tea Party with Trump..

From the abstract ...

"in eastern USA ... agricultural emissions make the largest relative contribution to PM2.5"

I'm pretty sure the "eastern USA" is already "agri-outed" today.

So if you stop breathing and stop eating you'll live longer?

It would have really been nice if they had also done this under a 100% renewables outcome (however difficult that may be to obtain in reality). Where the average life expectancy would be like 168 years old.

They left out an author though, one Professor Dr. Jack M.E. Hoff, PhD. MD, DDS, FUBAR (who currently resides in a mental institution for the criminally insane).

By Francis E Sargent (not verified) on 18 Sep 2015 #permalink

"what makes you say so"
Looking at the press release it seems clear to me that "emissions" in this context refers to emissions of the pollutants they have studied. Re-reading the abstract I would claim the same.

[I disagree; but see-also #6 -W]

Oops, sorry for the sock puppetry.

I'm sort of wondering if this paper would pass the sociological reproducibility test.

Meanwhile it looks REALLY bad for India, Really bad for China and really bad for ... Israel.

So we can conclude from this study, that the current places growing the fastest population-wise (southeast Asia and Africa) ... will have the most problems population-wise. D'oh! Derp! Hit me with a dumb stick!

And then a global pandemic or nuclear war shows up and these guys go ... oops ... nevermind..

By Everett F Sargent (not verified) on 18 Sep 2015 #permalink

Ah! Looks like we're both sorta right.
They have taken their projections from a paper that does include greenhouse gases but were only regarding the emissions relevant to their research subject.
So, yes, you would need to consider all the impacts of that BAU scenario.

[Hmm, interesting and odd -W]

Why odd?

[Its odd, if you're interested in the actual deaths, because they're saying there are as many deaths again from indoor fires, from indoor deaths, as the total deaths from all pollution in their study -W]

Cooking indoors over powdered coal briquets remains common in provincial chinese cities. Have the authors assumed all the smoke gets outdoors to be recycled into other epidemiological studies ?

Were the same methodology applied serriatim to to every combustion product and all their photochemical cogeners, the sum of the impact estimates could eaisily exceed total world population

Agricultural emissions means emissions from agriculture -- most of which is diesel-powered. Just heard a local discussion of that about the Central Valley of Ca. It's kind of spinnable, people will talk about 'agricultural' without mentioning it's got a large fossil fuel component.

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 18 Sep 2015 #permalink

and speaking of outdoor air quality:

"The illegal system allowed cars to detect when they were undergoing smog emission test and lowered the rate of pollution. Those emission controls were then turned off during ordinary use.

The state of California which assisted in the investigation has also issued a notice of violation to Volkswagen."

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 18 Sep 2015 #permalink

Francis should look up East St. Louis for a hint as to why African Americans in the St. Louis area have lower life expectancy

William should walk around some nearby area where everyone heats indoors with peat for another hint.

By Eli Rabett (not verified) on 19 Sep 2015 #permalink

As nobody ends up with 'Cause of death: air pollution' on their death certificate all this is an exercise in relative contribution. If you line up all the deaths attributed to indirect causes you are left with only 11 people who died in their bathtub last year.

In China, those cooking on charcoal briquets inside are often also heating their home with a portable generator and live in a very polluted city. They are disproportionately more likely to be smokers and to work in heavily polluted workspaces.

Cause of death? China. Similar stories can be written throughout the developing world. And frequently are. Sadly, the way reporting regimes are run by NGOs and government agencies, that poor Chinese man will end up being counted as five deaths, one by an agency looking at indoor pollution, one by an agency looking at smoking, etc.

By Thomas Fuller (not verified) on 19 Sep 2015 #permalink

Now some, not Eli to be sure, might think there are a few thousand death certificates from 1952 in London that list cause of death as smog. Just sayin

[Indeed there are. Since then our energy use has increased and the smog death rte has plummeted -W]

By Eli Rabett (not verified) on 19 Sep 2015 #permalink

Tom Fuller writes: " Sadly, the way reporting regimes are run by NGOs and government agencies, that poor Chinese man will end up being counted as five deaths, one by an agency looking at indoor pollution, one by an agency looking at smoking, etc."

Interesting. Somehow it's the fault of the NGOs.


By Kevin O'Neill (not verified) on 19 Sep 2015 #permalink

[Indeed there are. Since then our energy use has increased and the smog death rte has plummeted -W]

Here, let me put my cigarette down. let me put my bottle of Jack down. let be put my heroin needle down, let me stop backending this shehe hoe, let me stop driving while sexting and let me stop getting health care ... because ... wait for it ... air pollution will kill us all more so than any other cause.

Seriously you need to get with the program. It's BAU!

China, no scrubbers now --> no scrubbers to 2050, because BAU.
India, no scrubbers now --> no scrubbers to 2050, because BAU.

I actually have a copy of the paper (it's as easy as going to Nature in filling in the blanks) and you know what's missing?

No context, no frame of reference, no data on increased life expectancy due to things like medicine and health care.

Just mortality rates due to air pollution alone. I want to know the total mortality rates and what fraction air pollution alone causes. Is that asking too much?

AGW is killing us, I tell you, all of us ... oh wait ... you mean we all die eventually? Didn't know that.

So today instead, of "Simpsons did it" it's "AGW did it" or some such.

Not only that, but in the finger pointing blame game contest it's "ExxonMobil did it" or some such.

So, unless you live in a cave or up a tree, perhaps you all should take a cold hard look in the proverbial mirror, and say to yourself "I did it" or some such.

Whatever happens it's because we all did it. Humanity hosing the Earth. No Sh1t! Go figure.

By Everett F Sargent (not verified) on 20 Sep 2015 #permalink


So, unless you live in a cave or up a tree, perhaps you all should take a cold hard look in the proverbial mirror, and say to yourself “I did it” or some such.

Whatever happens it’s because we all did it. Humanity hosing the Earth. No Sh1t! Go figure.

No shit, Everett, you're absolutely right. You do realize we all knew that already, don't you?

Yeah, I did it. But 50 years after I took that cold hard look in the mirror and decided I'd leave no descendants, I can say the buck stops with me. The iniquity of our fathers will not be visited upon my children unto the nth generation.

How about you, Everett? You did "it" too. Even if you live in a cave, it must have an electrical outlet, or you wouldn't be able to harangue people on blogs. Will there be an nth generation of you? And do you have a plan to persuade the rest of our species to stop doing it? Or did you just feel the need to tell us all what we already knew?

By Mal Adapted (not verified) on 20 Sep 2015 #permalink



Mom had three offspring = me and two sisters = no further offspring.

One tank of gas so far this year (but it's looking good).

I'm an ascetic, I live (rent) in something called a shotgun house, in the poorest section of the city. Once a man twice a poor child. I can poor mouth with the best of them. Queue Four Yorkshiremen. When I die, I was s-o-o-o-o-o-o-o p-o-o-o-o-o-o-r ...

I do think you missed this part though "Whatever happens it’s because WE all did it."

But hey, solving (err, arguing over) all the world's problems, electronically even, on the internets, that's s-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o useful (voiceover by one Randy Marsh).

By Everett F Sargent (not verified) on 20 Sep 2015 #permalink


By Mal Adapted (not verified) on 20 Sep 2015 #permalink


I'm here for a reason. I thought this was the Complaints Department.

[No, this is contradictions -W]

That reason being to try to understand future mortality rates, total future mortality rates, not just mortality rates from future air pollution alone.

But you know what? Here's a good place to start answering that question ...…

By the time I have a reasonable handle on said subject matter ... given the typical half life of blog commentary ... of a few hours to a few days ... in order to have an informed opinion on said subject matter ... you all will have moved on ... to something else.

IMHO all talk and no actual learning.

By Everett F Sargent (not verified) on 20 Sep 2015 #permalink

I think it would be very edifying if all the folks debating how many death angels can fit on a PM 2.5 could actually feel what it is like to be one of the 10-20% of the population that has a heightened response to ozone. You may be one. Ever have a sore throat for no apparent reason on a hot muggy summer day? If you live down wind of a major city, you might know the feeling. With stricter air pollution laws in the US, the phenomenon is somewhat less frequent and debilitating than it used to be, but to a sensitive person, it was comparable to a severe strep throat during many days each summer. Every breath can be agony. Since the condition goes away as the ozone level diminishes ( at night, indoors) it is not likely to be present the next day for a doctor to diagnose.

Anyway, this is an affliction that is intermittent, and, since only a minority of the population suffers from it, and since the chronic cumulative effects are rarely directly diagnosed and linked to air pollution, this is just another example of a way in which our race of sentient monkeys blindly continues to pollute itself into ever more interesting extinction opportunities, happily driving our NOx emitting diesel vehicles with reckless abandon.

Have a nice day.

Funnily enough, despite all the fear of "life threatening" radioisotopes in Japan, people have no prolem with farmers burning chaff in the fields - leaving an acrid haze to assault the lungs of nearby residents.

[No, this is contradictions -W]

Believe it or not, I 1st saw MP in 1970, via the CBC (Burlington, Vt is aboot 100 miles south of Montreal via cable TV).

MP warped my fragile little mind. In the spring of 1973 while at VTC and their winter carnival, our group made a snow sculpture, a giant terlit, dyed green, with me sitting on top in "The Thinker" pose (even then, it wouldn't have been PC to call it "The Stinker"), made the yearbook even.

As to Doctor Who, I could have sworn that I watched it in the 60's via the CBC. (not just the 1st season). Wikipedia suggests otherwise.

Comedy is the only thing that keeps me relatively sane.

By Everett F Sargent (not verified) on 21 Sep 2015 #permalink

When I was in grade 11 or 12, I took my English teacher to see the MP live show. She was horrified by the part where the bartender says "Would you like a squeeze of LEMMING?" and the participants start puking all over the place. I thought it was fun, and I'm glad that my kids enjoy it today.

Today's pictures of Shanghai look a lot like the 1950s pictures of London.

By Eli Rabett (not verified) on 21 Sep 2015 #permalink

How many prematurely lost human-years make up one death? Statistically speaking, that is. I agree that someone who dies one minute sooner does not count as much as someone cut down in their prime by avoidable cancer caused by pollution. But what's the baseline? If lifespan is, for example, 80 years, does it take a full 80 human-years of premature death to equal "one death?"
More seriously, I expect some experts already have a formula for this somewhere.

[I think its usual to measure "years of life" rather than life / death; that's what JA was trying to say. To take it to absurd extremes, if smoke from indoor fires was bad enough to kill a granny a week away from death's door, but not significantly affect the sprightly, then you measure a granny-death at 1/52 nd of a year; whereas the death of a youth in a road accident would count as, perhaps 52 years gone. That would substantially affect the balance between smog deaths and traffic accidents -W]

By Russell the Stout (not verified) on 22 Sep 2015 #permalink

PR from the WHO ...
7 million premature deaths annually linked to air pollution

The numbers from the aforementioned paper are death rates.

Death rate is the metric used by the WHO, one would need to go argue with them, if one were to argue for a more than one cause attribution to each and every single death.

But I'd sort of SWAG/conjecture that partial attribution statistics might add up to the aggregate (or gross) statistics based on death rates alone?

The OECD uses a baseline of 70 years of age and something called PYLL ...

It is somewhat self evident that life span has increased by ~10 years between 1970 and 2011 (for OECD countries which isn't the world but does include China and India) ...…

So as of right now, moving the goal posts as it were, I'd argue for life expectancy ...

By Everett F Sargent (not verified) on 22 Sep 2015 #permalink