Dead by Air

photo: Wawel Hill and Łęg Cogeneration and power plant before sunrise (by Jar.ciurus / wikipedia)
photo: Wawel Hill and Łęg Cogeneration and power plant before sunrise (by Jar.ciurus / wikipedia)


Imagine you wake up like you do every morning. The rays of the sun cross your face and you stretch your arms and legs. After a quick shower and small breakfast, you slip into your shoes, grab your keys and leave your apartment through the front door. You close the gate of your front yard behind you on your way to work, just like your neighbors. But then your throat starts to itch. Now it burns. It is difficult to breathe. You fall on your knees and through the angle of your blurred vision you see your neighbors. Everyone is sprawled out on the ground. Nobody can breathe. All goes dark. You are dead. Something deadly was in the air.


This sounds like the beginning of a science-fiction-story. And it is, somehow. Yet the scene reveals a grain of truth. Millions of people around the globe die prematurely because of air pollution. Every year. A study carried out by the Max-Planck-Institute from 2015 lists the mortality rate due to fine particles and air pollution at 3.3 million people per year. And that number is expected to double by 2050. It is a shockingly high number.


But it gets even worse: The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health published a study in October of 2017 about premature deaths in 2015 – the same year in which the Max-Planck-Institute based its findings. This study said that “diseases caused by pollution were responsible for an estimated 9 million premature deaths.” Poor air quality, in general, including ambient and household air pollution has been guilty for 6.5 million deaths. This is the figure that the German institution forecasts for 2050.


The Causes: Poverty in the East

Most people blame road traffic as the main pollutant contributing to poor air quality. And all this traffic around the world – whether it be cars, airplanes, ships, or space crafts – are, indeed, problems. But they are not the biggest problem. In Poland and many other eastern countries, the biggest problem is caused by small domestic fires. The temperature in Poland drops down to an average temperature of minus four degrees Celsius in the winter months – sometimes down to minus 20 degrees. The insulation of the buildings is substandard. To stay warm, the people have to heat their houses. But gas and electricity are expensive. Wood, coal and scrap paper are cheap. “Only about 10 percent of Krakow’s households use solid fuel furnaces for heating”, wrote Jamie Stokes for the Krakow Post in 2015. In the summer, the air over Krakow is clean. But in the winter… smog is everywhere. The people need to wear masks. When most people think about smog, pictures from China and India arise in their heads. But this is also a European problem. As a solution, the City of Krakow passed a law that is to take effect in 2019. It calls for the ban of coal-fired stoves and domestic wood burning.

“Only about 10 percent of Krakow's households

use solid fuel furnaces for heating

                  - Jamie Stokes for the Krakow Post

The farther east one travels, the worse the problem gets. China, one of the biggest polluters, has taken a big step in the direction of environmental sustainability. In order to detect violations of the prescribed emission targets, the government has deployed more than 7,000 inspectors – with success: In the first two weeks of October 2017, the inspectors shut down more than 44,000 coal-fired power plants and 176,000 factories, the German weekly “Die Zeit” reported


But the Republic of China is a rich nation. Other eastern countries, like Nepal are poor. It does not matter if it is summer or winter, many people are poor and they do not have money for a proper heating or cooking system. If you walk through Kathmandu, you see people everywhere outside who burn garbage in tin barrels or on an outdoor fire place to cook. Even in the summer, the air is dusty. One reason is all the sand. Sand residues were created by the devastating earthquake of 2015. But the other reasons are smog from old vehicles, the smoke from burned garbage and industrial emissions.


Illustration: Dead by Air Pollution (Patrick Klapetz by visme)
Illustration: Dead by Air Pollution (Patrick Klapetz by visme)

The Causes: The Western Sickness

If you take a look at the wealthier countries of the west, you might think that they are immune to these problems. They have proper heating systems, modern cars and many prophylactic laws. But they too have the same problems. The reasons are different. In countries like Japan, the eastern seaboard of the USA, Turkey, Russia and in western European nations, the main cause of air pollution is agriculture.

On a global scale, every fifth death caused

by air pollution is due to agricultural emissions.

Excessive fertilization releases ammonia into the atmosphere through the chemical transformation of nitrates into ammonium sulfate. On a global scale, every fifth death caused by air pollution is due to agricultural emissions. In countries like Germany, Russia and the Ukraine, the death-rate due to agriculture is even higher: Over 40 percent.


Another culprit causing fine particles is the greed for meat, especially for cheap meat. The “Meat Atlas” from the German Heinrich Boell Foundation investigated meat consumption and its consequences. Per capita consumption was 42.5 kilograms per year on a global average for the year 2012. But individual, national consumption figures vary widely. The meat consumed per person in Africa is less than 20 kilograms. In Germany that figure is around 60 kilograms. And the USA consumed more than 75 kilograms per person each year, according to the latest “Meat Atlas 2018” survey. German figures continue to show that meat consumed per person was still around 59 kilograms last year. Fluid livestock wastes from ranching and husbandry pollute the groundwater with nitrogen. Even if over-fertilization were to end tomorrow, Europe's soils would take decades to recover. Especially areas of the UK, Netherlands, Denmark, northern Germany, northern Italy and the north-west of France suffer from high to very high nitrogen pollution of the soil. More bad news: The meat- and milk-industry combined to produce 14 percent of the global emissions of carbon dioxide in 2016.


Dusty Consequences

There are two main consequences that result from air pollution. The first one is a local problem. “Nearly 92 % of pollution-related deaths occur in low-income and middle-income countries” according to the Lancet Commission report. First of all, this figure is based on the nine million premature deaths that included air pollution (and the estimated 6.5 million diseases related to air pollution), water pollution, occupational pollution and soil, chemical and heavy metal pollution. Secondly, even though pollution is a world-wide problem and many countries are at the root of all evils, the main bill is borne by the poor.

“Nearly 92 % of pollution-related deaths occur

in low-income and middle-income countries”

                  - Lancet Commission report

 The other main consequence is reflected in respiratory related diseases. The Max-Planck-Institute found that 27 percent of the prematurely deceased died of lung cancer and respiratory diseases like asthma. The largest part, three-quarters, die from the consequences of a heart attack or strokes.


Pollution is More Deadly than War

Back to the beginning: You open your eyes. It was just a dream. Your are able to breathe and you take a deep and healthy breath. You feel the clean air in your lungs and you taste it on your tongue. The sun is shining and you are happy to be alive. But up to 6.5 million people die prematurely because of poor air quality. Because of pollution, nine million human beings died in 2015. 

“Pollution were responsible for [...]  

16 % of all deaths worldwide

           - Lancet Commission report

These nine million comprised “16 % of all deaths worldwide – three times more deaths than from AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined and 15 times more than from all wars and other forms of violence”, so the Lancet Commission. Even if it is difficult to correlate the exact number of premature deaths bore by disease, the figure is high. Too high. Maybe it is time to change something. Rethinking our own consumption habits and lifestyles would be a good start.


sources: Krakow Post, Zeit Online, Max-Planck-Institut,

Heinrich Boell Stiftung, The Lancet Commission 

May 2018

by Patrick Klapetz

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