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UN expert expects pushback over air pollution death report

An alarming new report from a UN agency has again warned about the dangers of burning carbon-based fuels; but this time, it's not coming from the environmentalists.

On Tuesday, a United Nations agency issued an alarming new report. Reflecting an emerging consensus among scientists, the UN more than doubled its previous estimate of the annual deaths caused primarily by burning carbon-based fuels such as coal, oil and wood. UN experts called on nations to cut back on coal, shift from cars toward public transportation, and increase energy efficiency in buildings and industry.

This may sound awfully familiar.

But Tuesday’s UN report was not about climate change, and was not written by an environmental body. Instead, it was authored by the UN’s public health arm the World Health Organization, and it pointed toward a different culprit: the mortality caused by diseases resulting from air pollution.

The WHO’s report has generated headlines for its striking topline finding: an estimated 7 million people died from air pollution in 2012, making it the world’s single greatest environmental health threat. This figure more than doubled the WHO’s previous estimate in 2008, and nearly tripled its estimate for deaths resulting from outdoor air pollution from 1.3 million to 3.7 million.

“The number is large enough to be striking,” said Dr. Jonathan Samet, a pulmonary physician and epidemiologist who directs the University of Southern California’s Institute for Global Health.

For deaths from outdoor air pollution, 88 percent occurred in low and middle income countries, and the Western Pacific region, which includes China, suffered the highest mortality totals and per capita death rates in the world. China gets most of its energy from burning coal, which emits large amounts of particulates into the air, and consumes nearly half of all coal used worldwide. “China Smog at the Center of Air Pollution Deaths Cited by WHO,” read a headline by Bloomberg.

The report also found a sharp increase in deaths from household air pollution, which it attributed largely to smoke from cookstoves that burn wood and other types of biomass.

The dramatic surge in mortality estimates is mostly a result of more sophisticated measurements, said Dr. Carlos Dora of the WHO’s Department of Public Health and Environment. The population being considered roughly doubled because satellite data recently made it possible to estimate air pollution deaths in rural areas, and advances in scientific consensus on the role of air pollution in heart attacks and strokes significantly increased death totals. 

Dora said his team at the WHO was developing recommendations for government policies to reduce the heavy mortality burden. 

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