World Health Organization: 7 million deaths in 2012 due to air pollution

Western Pacific Region, the world’s worst for air pollution

News release

An estimated seven million people worldwide died due to illnesses linked to air pollution in 2012 alone, according to new data released today by the World Health Organization (WHO) today. The new data shows that WHO’s Western Pacific Region is the worst hit. A total of 2.8 million deaths were estimated to be caused by air pollution in 2012 in the region. Individual country data will be finalized and published in the months ahead. The vast majority of deaths occur in low- and middle-income (LMI) countries.

“Air pollution is one of the most significant global health risks today – comparable to the health risks from tobacco,” WHO Representative in China, Dr Bernhard Schwartländer said.

“The new data released today highlights the importance of strong action now to tackle the causes of air pollution in countries such as China, and to protect the public from the range of serious health risks air pollution causes – both in the short and long-term,” Dr Schwartländer added.

The majority (69%) of deaths associated with air pollution globally were due to ischaemic heart disease and strokes; 25% of deaths were due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or acute lower respiratory infections; and 6% of deaths were due to lung cancer.

In 2013, the WHO’s specialized agency for cancer research, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded that outdoor air pollution is carcinogenic to humans, with the particulate matter component of air pollution most closely associated with increased cancer incidence, especially cancer of the lung.

The primary sources of ambient or outdoor air pollution include industrial and motor vehicle emissions and household heating.

The major sources of household or indoor pollution are the burning of fossil fuels, such as solid fuels in open fire cooking stoves, as well as second-hand smoke from tobacco products.

Women in China are exposed to second-hand smoke in homes and workplaces at some of the highest rates in the world.

“Air pollution is now the world’s single largest environmental health risk. WHO is concerned about the situation in China, where cities such as Beijing regularly experience dangerously high levels of outdoor air pollution,” Dr Schwartländer said.

“However, WHO is greatly encouraged by the strong commitment from the Chinese Government to tackling this problem. In his recent speech to China’s National People’s Congress, Premier Li Keqiang declared a ‘war on air pollution’ – signaling the seriousness with which the Government of China views this issue, and its determination to do something about it,” Dr Schwartländer added.

“WHO looks forward to continuing to support the Chinese government in taking strong action to reduce air pollution levels over the long term, and protect the public against the health harms of high pollution levels in the short term,” Dr Schwartländer said.

“Of course, the air pollution crisis did not occur overnight, and the solutions will not occur overnight. But let this new data serve as a call to action for governments, the health sector, the environmental sector, and industry to work together to address this crisis. The imperative could not be clearer: reducing air pollution could save millions of lives,” Dr Schwartländer concluded.


  • The new data released today does not include country-specific breakdowns of estimated number of deaths caused by air pollution;
  • For a detailed explanation on how the global and regional air pollution data were calculated, please visit WHO’s global website at

About the World Health Organization

WHO is the directing and coordinating authority for health within the United Nations system. It is responsible for providing leadership on global health matters, shaping the health research agenda, setting norms and standards, articulating evidence-based policy options, providing technical support to countries and monitoring and assessing health trends.

For more information, please contact:

Helen Yu
Communications Officer, WHO China
Office Tel: +86 10 6532 7191