Deforestation air pollution global premature deaths map NASA key

Published on September 22nd, 2013 | by Michael Ricciardi


New NASA Map Shows Where You Are Most Likely To Die From Air Pollution

air pollution global premature deaths map NASA key

Each year millions of premature deaths world-wide result from various forms of air pollution. According to a new atmospheric pollution model designed by earth scientist Jason West of the University of North Carolina (data from which informs the NASA map shown above), some 2.1 million deaths per year result from just one particular form of atmospheric pollution: fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, which is emitted in car exhaust and smokestack effluent (and other industrial, domestic and natural  sources).

In general, these polluting particles in the atmosphere are referred to as aerosols (a mixture of particulate matter and air). Aerosols can take the form of suspended particulate matter (SPM), respirable suspended particles (RSP), which are particles with a diameter of 10 micrometers (microns) or less, and, the aforementioned fine PM2.5…the ’2.5′ refers to particles of 2.5 microns or less and may include ultrafine particles, and some forms of soot (such as black carbon soot from cooking stoves and biomass burning).

Sometimes transient, natural, meteorological conditions combine with human pollution, resulting in “extreme outbreaks of air pollution.” For example, in January, 2013, a blanket of industrial pollution enveloped northeastern China, and, in June, 2013, smoke from agricultural fires in Sumatra engulfed Singapore.

Health researchers have linked PM2.5 with everything from asthma to lung disease, and even heart attacks (perhaps caused from the stress of not getting sufficient oxygen into the lungs). But the longer-term impacts of this form of pollution can be far more insidious. According to NASA’s Earth Observatory website:

‘In most cases, the most toxic pollution lingers for a few days or even weeks, bringing increases in respiratory and cardiac health problems at hospitals. Eventually the weather breaks, the air clears, and memories of foul air begin to fade. But that’s not to say that the health risks disappear as well. Even slightly elevated levels of air pollution can have a significant effect on human health. Over long periods and on a global scale, such impacts can add up.’

The map shows regions around the globe with significant numbers of annual deaths due to particulate pollution. The darker the coloration the greater the death rates, with the darkest coloration indicating  death rates as high as 1,000 deaths per 1,000 square kilometers.

One can easily identify vast regions in Central/Eastern Europe, Southern and Northern India,  South/Southeast Asia, and most of Japan as having the darkest coloration. These areas typically include highly populated, extensively urbanized areas.

Areas colored blue (Southern US, mid South America) represent more positive trends where reductions in smog and other particulate pollution (mostly from agricultural burning) have been dramatically reduced since the 1850′s. Sadly, there are very few such regions, globally speaking, perhaps due to the lack of air quality laws.

This newest model by West et al combines 6 different atmospheric models into one — a major improvement over their 2010 estimate that relied on just one model (which included premature mortality estimates from ozone and PM 2.5 pollution). The pollution models used to inform this map include historical data going back 160 years — to the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution.

The details of their premature mortality estimation (for the 2.1 million deaths cited) can be found in their March, 2013 paper Global premature mortality due to anthropogenic outdoor air pollution and the contribution of past climate change‘ published in Environmental Research Letters.

Map Credit/Source: Map made by NASA’s Robert Simmon based on data from Jason West


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About the Author

Michael Ricciardi is a well-published writer of science/nature/technology articles as well as essays, poetry and short fiction. Michael has interviewed dozen of scientists from many scientific fields, including Brain Greene, Paul Steinhardt, Arthur Shapiro, and Nobel Laureate Ilya Progogine (deceased). Michael was trained as a naturalist and taught ecology and natural science on Cape Cod, Mass. from 1986-1991. His first arts grant was for production of the environmental (video) documentary 'The Jones River - A Natural History', 1987-88 (Kingston, Mass.). Michael is an award winning, internationally screened video artist. Two of his more recent short videos; 'A Time of Water Bountiful' and 'My Name is HAM' (an "imagined memoir" about the first chimp in space), and several other short videos, can be viewed on his website ( He is also the author of the (Kindle) ebook: Artful Survival ~ Creative Options for Chaotic Times

  • Waterman

    If there were no pollution at all on the planet, the dark areas on the map, in India and China, etc., would still show the most deaths/area due to the high population. I think we should reduce pollution, but it is important to use data that makes sense statistically. For instance, instead of measuring deaths/area, they could report mortality rate. Still, it would be impossible to prove that this is directly caused by air quality.

  • Danny Adams

    And this is why polluters don’t want you to know that 80% of lung cancer cases are from people who don’t smoke or have never smoked. If everyone thinks lung cancer is from smoking and thus the smoker’s own fault, the polluters don’t have to do anything to clean up their act.

    • Zachary Shahan

      Great point!

    • John

      One in ten smokers get lung cancer; one in one hundred non-smokers get lung cancer

  • Erin

    We can’t view those links from NASA. It’s not too late to air pollution awareness.

    • Michael Ricciardi

      Sorry about the NASA link malfunction, folks, apparently, the website is down; multiple attempts to reach it have failed (government shutdown?)

  • bearmon2010

    No proof.

    • Michael Ricciardi


      Perhaps you should try and read the studies (linked to in the article).

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