According to the 2010 Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors (GBD) Study published this month in The Lancet, high blood pressure, tobacco smoke, and alcohol abuse are the world's most dangerous risk factors for disease. Among the other top-ten items on that grim list, we also find air pollution -- largely ambient particulate matter from auto emissions. 

That's the first time that air pollution has made the global top-ten list of disease risk factors. Its rise in prominence seems linked to increased vehicle usage (as well as construction and commerce) in emerging economies, since the study notes that air pollution is especially bad in countries like China and India.


The GBD study shows that in 2010, 3.2 million people around the globe died from diseases caused by air pollution. Of those 3.2 million fatalities, over 2 million were in Asia, with the bulk in east Asia and China (1.2 million deaths) and south Asia and India (712,000).

As if that weren't bad enough, those 3.2 million fatalities represent a 400% increase in air-pollution-related disease since 2000, when 800,000 deaths were linked to the problem. However, David Pettit, director of the Southern California Air Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says that the 2010 figures may simply reflect more accurate tracking methods. Speaking to Climate Central, Pettit says that previous studies like the one carried out in 2000 measured only coarse particulate matter and were limited to urban areas. In other words, the problem may have been growing for some time, scientists just haven't had the tools to measure it properly.


The Centre for Science and the Environment (CSE) says that the GBD report is based on a complex study of "ground-level measurements, satellite remote sensing and global chemical transport models to capture population exposure". According to the CSE's executive director for research and advocacy and head of air pollution issues, Anumita Roychowdhury, the study's findings point to a grim future, plagued by a soaring number of premature deaths caused by air pollution:

Days of doubts and complacency are over. There is hard enough evidence now to act urgently to reduce the public health risks to all, particularly the children, elderly, and poor. No one can escape toxic air. India will have to take aggressive action to reverse the trend of short term respiratory and cardiac effects as well as the long term cancer and other metabolic and cellular effects. Remember – toxic effects like cancer surface after a long latency period. Therefore, exposure to air pollution will have to be reduced today to reduce the burden of dieses [sic].

In a brief plan, Roychowdhury lists six action items to address the problem of air pollution, two of which are directly related to India's auto industry. She would like to identify a "stringent vehicle technology and fuel quality roadmap and in-use vehicle management to cut health impact of motorization" and to "[c]ontrol and cut explosive increase in vehicle numbers by scaling up public transport, non-motorised transport and compact city planning".

Of course India isn't alone in facing exponentially greater health problems due to air pollution. The issue will have a huge impact across Asia and elsewhere in the world. The question is: will Roychowdhury and her like-minded colleagues convince politicians and government agencies to act before the problem gets completely out of hand?