So-Called 'Silent Killer' Caused One in Five Deaths Worldwide, Study Says

There's something people come in contact with every day that's being called a "silent killer" responsible for about 20 percent of deaths worldwide in 2018.

Car exhaust
Car exhaust Photo Credit: Wikimedia/Duke Makangila

A new study by various top universities has found that air pollution killed 8.7 million people globally in 2018 - about one in five deaths.

A major contributor to fatal air pollution was caused by burning fossil fuels such as coal and oil, said the study, “Global mortality from outdoor fine particle pollution generated by fossil fuel combustion: Results from GEOS-Chem.” 

Exposure to high levels of air pollution can cause respiratory infections, heart disease, and lung cancer among other adverse health outcomes, according to the World Health Organization.

Looking more closely at air pollution deaths, the study showed variations in how deadly the air is from country to country. In the United States and Europe 1 in 10 people died from inhaling polluted air, according to an analysis of the research by The Guardian. While in China and eastern Asia, air pollution was responsible for one-third of all deaths.

The study results found far more deaths than many other past investigations into air pollution and mortality, researchers noted. A 2019 Lancet study, for example, found 4.2 million annual deaths attributed to air pollution coming from wildfire smoke as well as fossil fuel combustion.

In 2012, the World Health Organization discovered that air pollution killed 1 in 8 people worldwide that year. The WHO characterizes air pollution as “the world’s largest single environmental health risk.”

“We were initially very hesitant when we obtained the results because they are astounding, but we are discovering more and more about the impact of this pollution,” Eloise Marais, a geographer at University College London and a study co-author told The Guardian. “It’s pervasive. The more we look for impacts, the more we find.”

The recent “Global mortality from outdoor fine particle pollution …” research was conducted by scientists at Harvard Univerity, the University of Birmingham, the University of Leicester, and University College London.

To see the full study, visit

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