Air pollution could kill 9 million people a year by 2060, OECD warns

Pollution is a severe problem in China, and factories often break environmental laws by releasing pollutants into the air, water and soil. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

A new study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has found that, not only is air pollution worse than expected, but that it will lead to an increase in deaths that could be as high as nine million a year.

READ MORE: These cities have the worst urban air pollution in the world: WHO

The World Health Organization estimates that in 2012, 3.7 million people died due to outdoor air pollution and the number is set to rise.

The most vulnerable are the elderly. The projections from the OECD sees that number doubling, or perhaps even tripling by 2060, an equivalent of one death every four to five seconds.

“The number of lives cut short by air pollution is already terrible and the potential rise in the next few decades is terrifying,” said OECD environment director Simon Upton, presenting the report at the 8th Environment for Europe Ministerial Conference in Batumi, Georgia. “If this is not motivation enough to act, this report shows there will also be a heavy economic cost to not taking action.”

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As well as the human toll it will take, there will also be economic ones, according to the report. The OECD estimates that there will be a worldwide cost of $1.6 trillion annually, the equivalent of the entire Canadian economy. This is due to a reduction in crop yields as well as lower labour productivity.

In OECD member countries — which includes Canada — air pollution deaths fell by four per cent between 2005 and 2010. While that is welcome news, deaths continue in other countries, in some cases, increasing.

In China, for example, where air pollution is a major concern due to coal use and the influx of automobiles, deaths due to air pollution increased by five per cent in the same period. In India, pollution-related deaths jumped by 12 per cent.

Particulate matter is found in the air. It is comprised of dust, dirt, soot, and more. PM 2.5, however, worries scientists the most. It is matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometres. This can come from the burning of fossil fuels.

WATCH: Air pollution taking heavy toll

One of the major concerns is pollution caused by vehicles on the road.

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The OECD said that, though cars are emitting less pollution, there are more cars on the road. In Beijing tighter emission controls were adopted for vehicles.

“However, the rapid growth in traffic has outpaced the adoption of tighter emission limits,” the OECD said in its latest report.

And it’s in countries like China and India — as well as Korea and central Asian countries — where we can expect to see the most deaths. An increase in automobiles, congested cities and more power plants to provide citizens with electricity will exacerbate the problem.

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