200,000 Americans die every year from air pollution

  • Published on April 21st, 2020

Below is an article I published in August 2017. As we consider perhaps more than ever how much different things cause death in the USA, I think it’s good to take note of the vast number of premature deaths that come as a result of air pollution — 200,000 a year in the United States. Also, we have seen research that air pollution leads to a higher likelihood of death from COVID-19, so add some of those deaths to the tally.

Coal plant smog photo by Union of Concerned Scientists


Cleantechnica

Before jumping into the article all about death statistics, though, here’s a list of just some of the problems caused by air pollution:

On to that 2017 article, as relevant as ever.


This Stealth Terrorist Killed ~53,000 Americans Last Year

Humans are a funny type of people. We don’t do long-term planning all that well, and that includes planning for a year out, for 5 years out, and for our eventual time of death.

We are frightened like little kittens about things that might affect us immediately — bees, unfriendly dogs, a fast-approaching car, etc. We are frightened of extremely unlikely but direct harms — being in a plane crash, being attacked by terrorists, being mugged on a dark street. But we largely ignore real threats that are much more likely to cause us harm — like air pollution from our cars and our neighbors’ cars.

A World Health Organization (WHO) study a few years ago found that there are 7 million premature deaths a year from outdoor air pollution. There are many, many more people who don’t die young from such pollution but who do suffer in one way or another from it. In dollar terms (pretending that we can quantify these things), “air pollution from road transport costs OECD countries approximately $1 trillion a year in negative health effects (cancer, premature death, asthma, heart attacks, etc.).”

WIR pollution deaths cancer

In the USA, an MIT study found that there are 200,000 premature deaths a year coming from air pollution. Road transportation accounts for 53,000 of those new additions to the graveyard and crematorium. Electricity generation from coal and natural gas power plants accounted for 52,000 a year.

→ Related: Economic Benefits Of Electric Vehicles

Due in part to all of the driving that takes place in California and its large population, the total number of premature deaths a year in the Golden State was estimated to be 21,000, “mostly attributed to road transportation and to commercial and residential emissions from heating and cooking.”

These are real deaths. These are real people. Yet we treat them like abstract numbers, strangers we’ll never know or become. Few people decide this is enough to make them take action, to make them change things in their lives. If terrorists rolled in from Turkey and murdered 53,000 Americans a year, the population would be up in arms. There would be nonstop outcry and media coverage. Donald Trump, Republicans, Democrats, and Rastafarians would be plowing forward with grand plans to quickly and strongly defeat the terrorists.

premature deaths from air pollution

If another 52,000 Americans a year were being murdered by another group of terrorists — the “PPP Clan of South Africa*,” for example — the country would be in a state of insane turmoil, angst, imbalance, and war.

air pollution deaths by country
Click on the image for a larger version

Alas, it’s just us. We’re the only ones killing ourselves. No terrorists or gang members. Just the continuous hunt of 200,000 Americans a year from our decisions to burn stuff. If you’re not living in the United States, the story isn’t much different. Find the stats for your country and you will like find that they dwarf anything any other humans are directly doing to the population.

→ Related: Solar & Wind Subsidies = Less Than $0 In USA … Because Clean Energy Saves Lives!

Yes, once upon a time, imagining alternatives to pollution was challenging. Today? You have to be mighty picky to ignore, oppose, and reject cleantech offerings. There are transportation options for a wide variety of classes, driving needs, styling preferences, brand allegiances, etc. There are good rooftop solar options in many markets, community solar systems if rooftop solar doesn’t work, green energy procurement options from utilities, and even a nationwide renewable energy option from Arcadia Power.

But people decide they are more or less fine with the pollution coming out of their tailpipes. They are okay with their electricity sources killing them. Heating with natural gas? Well, that’s just they way things go.

If terrorists were killing 53,000 Americans a year, or 200,00 Americans a year, and we had easy solutions to stop that, you know we would. It would be a different world in 2020. Unfortunately, these are stealth terrorists, and the country is sleeping like Rip van Winkle.

→ Related: Investigating The Air Pollution Crisis (State of Pollution Series)

*Power Plant Polluters Clan
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(Originally appeared at our sister-site, Cleantechnica. Photo by Union of Concerned Scientists)

About the Author

is the director of CleanTechnica, the most popular cleantech-focused website in the world, and Planetsave, a world-leading green and science news site. He has been covering green news of various sorts since 2008, and he has been especially focused on solar energy, electric vehicles, and wind energy since 2009. Aside from his work on CleanTechnica and Planetsave, he's the founder and director of Solar Love, EV Obsession, and Bikocity. To connect with Zach on some of your favorite social networks, go to ZacharyShahan.com and click on the relevant buttons.