NASA map illustrates air pollution mortality rates

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Premature death due to air pollution (NASA.gov)
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Premature death due to air pollution (NASA.gov)

Want to know where people are most likely to die prematurely due to air pollution?

NASA recently recently released a map showing the average number of deaths per year per 1,000 square kilometers (385 square miles) that can be attributed to fine particle matter pollution.

Researchers compared pollution levels over a 150-year span, beginning in 1850 and ending in 2000. The dark brown areas on the map, shown prominently in Asia, India, Europe and parts of Africa, indicate locations with the highest rates of premature deaths due to air pollution.

Blue areas, as seen in the southeast United States and parts of South America, indicate areas that have seen air quality improve and the number of deaths due to air pollution decline.

Why are so many areas getting worse? According to NASA, that can be attributed to increased industrialization and urbanization. As to the areas in blue that have seen air quality improve from 1850 to 2000, researchers suggest that a decrease in biomass burning is the cause.

The research used to create the map comes from University of North Carolina professor Jason West.  Published in Environmental Research Letters, the study estimated that roughly 2.1 million deaths per year could be attributed to fine particle matter pollution alone.

What's fine particle matter? The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines it as "a complex mixture of extremely small particles and liquid droplets." Particle matter that is 10 micrometers in diameter or smaller is particularly worrisome "because those are the particles that generally pass through the throat and nose and enter the lungs," according to the EPA.

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