The Cost of Air Pollution: Strengthening the economic case for action, a joint study of the World Bank and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), seeks to estimate the costs of premature deaths related to air pollution, to strengthen the case for action and facilitate decision making in the context of scarce resources. An estimated 5.5 million lives were lost in 2013 to diseases associated with outdoor and household air pollution, causing human suffering and reducing economic development. Those deaths cost the global economy about US$225 billion in lost labor income in 2013 and more than US$5 trillion in welfare losses, pointing toward the economic burden of air pollution.
Air pollution is recognized today as a major health risk. Exposure to air pollution, both ambient and household, increases a person’s risk of contracting a disease such as lung cancer, stroke, heart disease, and chronic bronchitis. According to the latest available estimates, in 2013, 5.5 million premature deaths worldwide, or 1 in every 10 total deaths, were attributable to air pollution. Air pollution has posed a significant health risk since the early 1990s, the earliest period for which global estimates of exposure and health effects are available. In 1990, as in 2013, air pollution was the fourth leading fatal health risk worldwide, resulting in 4.8 million premature deaths.
Air pollution is especially severe in some of the world’s fastest-growing urban regions, where greater economic activity is contributing to higher levels of pollution and to greater exposure.
But air pollution is also a problem outside cities. Billions of people around the world continue to depend on burning solid fuels such as wood, charcoal, coal, and dung in their homes for cooking and heating. Consequently, the health risk posed by air pollution is the greatest in developing countries. In 2013 about 93 percent of deaths and nonfatal illnesses attributed to air pollution worldwide occurred in these countries, where 90 percent of the population was exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution. Children under age 5 in lower-income countries are more than 60 times as likely to die from exposure to air pollution as children in high-income countries.
Air pollution is not just a health risk but also a drag on development. By causing illness and premature death, air pollution reduces the quality of life. By causing a loss of productive labor, it also reduces incomes in these countries. Air pollution can have a lasting effect on productivity in other ways as well—for example, by stunting plant growth and reducing the productivity of agriculture, and by making cities less attractive to talented workers, thereby reducing cities’ competitiveness.
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