This claim is made in an article published on december 18th on the online version of the French newspaper Le Monde.

Des études scientifiques ont estimé que près de 1,4 million de Chinois meurent chaque année, directement ou indirectement, de la pollution de l’air.

Which translates to

Some scientific studies estimated that almost 1.4 million Chinese people die each year, directly or indirectly, from air pollution.

This claim is made without referring to any source. It sounds like a huge number to me, so I'd like to know if this is true.

  • 18
    Sounds low. The Canadian Medical Association estimates the figure for Canada at 21,000 per year, or around 538 per 1 million inhabitants. 1.4 million Chinese would be 1017 premature deaths per 1 million inhabitants, which is less than twice that of Canada. The World Health Organisation estimates the global toll at 7 million per year, which would put the Chinese only slightly above the global average. – gerrit Dec 18 '15 at 14:39
  • 3
    Reflection on the term "premature deaths" will show that the "real world meaning" of the term is not in fact easily understood, If smoking cigarettes causes some lethal cancers then statistically smoking one cigarette leads to premature death. How many understand what this means? The statistic HAS got meaning but would be better stated as increase in % death rate pa or decrease in average life expectancy. – Russell McMahon Dec 20 '15 at 20:44
  • I think the term is just misleading. Air pollution might very well reduce life qualities, but if you consider everybody who died from the reduction of life qualities to have "died prematurely", no matter how vague this estimation is (i.e. considering every other factor to be equal, do they die three months earlier? Then more likely they'll actually die 10 years "earlier" already from another disease, say cancer), then this is not very helpful. Also, then you might as well consider almost everything in life to be "causing premature deaths" as well. – xji Dec 24 '15 at 5:26

The following is accurate according to a scientific report published in Nature:

Nature 525, 367–371 (17 September 2015) The contribution of outdoor air pollution sources to premature mortality on a global scale doi:10.1038/nature15371 Received 10 May 2014 Accepted 27 July 2015 Published online 16 September 2015. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v525/n7569/full/nature15371.html

Scientists from Harvard University and other countries such as Cyprus and Germany measured the most detailed estimates yet of the toll of air pollution, in a quest to find the cause. The study found that outdoor air pollution is killing 3.3 million people a year worldwide, that is divided as follows:

  • China: 1,400,000 deaths/year.
  • India: 645,000 deaths/year.
  • European Union: 180,000 deaths/year.
  • Pakistan: 110,000 deaths/year.
  • United States: 54,905 deaths/year.
  • And so on...

The Guardian also reported that this study:

is the first study to single out different outdoor air pollution sources and estimate the number of premature deaths they each cause, considering road traffic, fossil fuel power stations and other sources.

Furthermore, global WHO estimates suggest that the result of the scientific report published in Nature is accurate:

Regionally, low- and middle-income countries in the WHO South-East Asia and Western Pacific Regions had the largest air pollution-related burden in 2012, with a total of:
- 3.3 million deaths linked to indoor air pollution.
- 2.6 million deaths related to outdoor air pollution.

As you see:

  • WHO estimated in 2012 that 2.6 million deaths are related to outdoor air pollution.

  • Nature study estimated in 2015 that 3.3 million deaths are related to outdoor air pollution.

Note that the The Nature study did not measure indoor air pollution, which obviously mean, according to the WHO estimate, that more deaths/year could result from indoor air pollution. Here is a list of caused/deaths published in WHO:

Outdoor air pollution-caused deaths:
40% – ischaemic heart disease;
40% – stroke;
11% – chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD);
6% – lung cancer;
3% – acute lower respiratory infections in children.

Indoor air pollution-caused deaths:
34% - stroke;
26% - ischaemic heart disease;
22% - COPD;
12% - acute lower respiratory infections in children;
6% - lung cancer.

The Nature study also predicted that the yearly death total will double to about 6.6 million a year by 2050.

To sum up: 1.4 million Chinese people die yearly due to outdoor air pollution. WHO suggests that a large number of Chinese people die from indoor air pollution too.

  • 1
    Hmm, that's less than half of the WHO estimate from the same year. I wonder if the difference can be attributed due to the keyword outdoor air pollution. Indoor cooking with wood fires in unventilated homes is pretty damning as well. Or perhaps the methodology is different. Regardless, the conclusion is the same. – gerrit Dec 18 '15 at 14:46
  • 2
    I upvoted this for the research involved, but I'll be honest I was quite sad by the time I was done reading. I know we try to remain objective on this site, but so much unnecessary death is just depressing... – corsiKa Dec 18 '15 at 18:37
  • 1
    How does this work? Air pollution increases the chance of a stroke, and so every stroke is counted as "killed by air pollution"? – user29292 Dec 20 '15 at 13:05
  • 5
    Well, I don't see how these numbers are of any use without a definition of "killed by air pollution". – user29292 Dec 20 '15 at 13:20
  • 1
    @StefanWalter: As for how to use these numbers. It is as follows: say for example the total death by "stroke" is 0.001% of the world population (I'm making numbers up here as an example) - that equals to 73000 people. Say for example that we figure out that pollution increases you chances of dying by stroke by 20%. So we know that if we completely eliminate air pollution we would reduce the death rate to 0.0008. Which means we can potentially save 14600 lives per year. Even if we don't completely eliminate pollution, every bit we eliminate makes us closer to that number. – slebetman Dec 21 '15 at 9:17

If we assume the Chinese to be average in dying due to air pollution, we can use global WHO estimates to assess how realistic this claim is.

WHO: 7 million premature deaths annually linked to air pollution:

25 March 2014 | Geneva - In new estimates released today, WHO reports that in 2012 around 7 million people died - one in eight of total global deaths – as a result of air pollution exposure.

Considering that 1 in 5 people worldwide is Chinese, that would put the total at around 1.5 million Chinese. So 1.4 million is actually slightly below the worldwide average — considering air quality in cities like Beijing, one might reasonably suspect that 1.4 million is possibly an underestimate.

Some more information from WHO:

Regionally, low- and middle-income countries in the WHO South-East Asia and Western Pacific Regions had the largest air pollution-related burden in 2012, with a total of 3.3 million deaths linked to indoor air pollution and 2.6 million deaths related to outdoor air pollution.

Some studies focus only on outdoor air pollution, which will lead to lower figures. For example, considering outdoor air pollution alone, WHO estimates global casualties between 3,187,700 and 4,290,900, which is consistent with the range of 1.61–4.81 million premature deaths reported by Lelieveld et al. as quoted in George Chalhoubs answer.

  • How many of the Chinese people live in cities, compared to remote farms? – Ian Ringrose Dec 21 '15 at 9:59
  • @IanRingrose The answer to that question changes incredibly rapidly, a majority live in cities. – gerrit Dec 21 '15 at 11:01
  • We also need to ask how long someone has to live in a city for air pollution to have an effect on the death rate, and if old people are more or less lickly to live in a city. – Ian Ringrose Dec 21 '15 at 11:03
  • @IanRingrose We do need to ask those questions in the broad sense (perhaps not on Skeptics), but in the narrow sense of answering the OPs claim it suffices to say that the claim is backed up by authoritative sources. – gerrit Dec 21 '15 at 11:05

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