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Researchers identify alarming phenomenon associated with over 100 million premature deaths: 'This highlights the need to understand'

The study estimates that 33.3% of the premature deaths were associated with stroke.

The study estimates that 33.3% of the premature deaths were associated with stroke.

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A new study led by researchers from Singapore's Nanyang Technological University linked fine particulate matter (PM2.5) air pollution to an estimated 135 million people dying prematurely between 1980 and 2020 worldwide. 

What's happening?

According to an NTU news release detailing the study, researchers determined that over the past four decades, climate patterns such as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, Indian Ocean Dipole, and the North Atlantic Oscillation worsened the impact of air pollution from PM2.5. This form of pollution increased premature deaths by 14% during the study period. 

The research team explained that higher temperatures, wind pattern changes, and decreased rainfall during these weather events can cause stagnant air, allowing more pollution to build up in the atmosphere. In turn, this leads to an accumulation of PM2.5 particles in the air, which are easily inhaled since they're so small — around 2.5 micrometers in diameter. 

PM2.5 is released from both human-caused sources, such as vehicle pollution and industrial processes, and natural weather events, like wildfires and dust storms

The study estimates that 33.3% of the premature deaths were associated with stroke, 32.7% were caused by ischemic heart disease, with the remaining deaths linked to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lower respiratory infections, and lung cancer. 

Researchers estimated that Asia had the highest number of premature deaths associated with PM2.5 air pollution, with 98.1 million over the four decades. China and India recorded the most, with an estimated 49 million and 26.1 million deaths, respectively.

"This highlights the need to understand and account for these climate patterns when tackling air pollution to protect the health of the global population," the study's lead author, associate professor Steve Yim of NTU's Asian School of the Environment and Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine said in the news release

While society has made progress in reducing harmful air pollution by phasing out dirty fuel sources, such as coal, poor air quality from burning oil and gas is still a major issue, especially in densely populated urban areas. 

Even though breathing in PM2.5 pollution may not necessarily lead to an early death, it can cause many other serious health problems, such as nonfatal heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, reduced lung function, and difficulty breathing, per the Environmental Protection Agency

The EPA explained that fine particulate matter can also harm the environment by creating haze, contributing to acid rain, reducing biodiversity, and damaging forests and waterways. 

And because the changing climate is exacerbating the effects of natural weather patterns such as El Niño, it's also making air pollution much more deadly than it would have been otherwise.

What's being done about air pollution?

The researchers called for stronger government policies to reduce the impacts of air pollution, especially during weather events that are known to make it worse.

In the European Union, a new law is requiring heavy-duty trucks to reduce carbon dioxide pollution by 90% by 2040. Meanwhile, a Swiss startup recently opened the world's largest carbon-capture plant, which will simultaneously help lower the planet's temperature while curbing unhealthy pollution. 

Individually, switching to an electric vehicle, installing solar panels, or even just eating more plant-based foods can contribute to a healthier, cleaner future.

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