Environment & Science

Air pollution deaths could rise with global temperatures

The downtown skyline is enveloped in smog shortly before sunset on November 17, 2006 in Los Angeles, California.
The downtown skyline is enveloped in smog shortly before sunset on November 17, 2006 in Los Angeles, California.
David McNew/Getty Images

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Over the next century the world could see an uptick in the number of deaths related to air pollution because of climate change, according to a new study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"As climate changes and the planet gets warmer, that drives the chemical reactions that create pollutants like ozone and fine particulate matter in the atmosphere," said lead researcher Jason West. Rising temperatures, a lack of rainfall and fewer storms allow pollution to gather and stagnate, and that in turn could have detrimental effects on public health.

"Those pollutants cause people to die early, because of heart attack, stroke, lung cancer, [and] chronic obstructive pulmonary disease," West said.

Currently, about 6.5 million deaths worldwide can be linked to air pollution every year.

According to West, that number could increase by 60,000 by 2030, and by 250,000 by 2100, as global temperatures climb by four degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

That projection is based on the assumption that rates of greenhouse gas emissions remain unchanged from current levels. Efforts to reduce those emissions would lower the risk of death linked to air pollution.

For Southern California, more days of extreme heat likely mean an increased number of dangerously polluted days — something the region is already dealing with.

As of July 25, the air across Southern California exceeded federal smog standards 81 times, an uptick over the two years prior according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District. AQMD's Sam Atwood attributed the increase in bad air days to weather patterns, noting that overall, smog-forming emissions continue to decline.

"In the 2050s, our work suggests that the number of ozone episode days could increase by 50-100 percent," said Loretta Mickley, a senior research fellow at Harvard University, who's studied air quality in Southern California.

The aforementioned scenario only applies if local emissions of smog-forming gases continue under current rates.