Since the turn of the century, global deaths attributable to air pollution have increased by more than half, a development that researchers say underscores the impact of pollution as the “largest existential threat to human and planetary health.”

The findings, part of a study published Tuesday in The Lancet Planetary Health, found that pollution was responsible for an estimated 9 million deaths around the world in 2019. Fully half of those fatalities, 4.5 million deaths, were the result of ambient, or outdoor, air pollution, which is typically emitted by vehicles and industrial sources like power plants and factories.

Ambient air pollution can be generated by a range of sources, including wildfires.

Deepti Singh.

Deepti Singh, an assistant professor at the School of the Environment at Washington State University, co-authored a separate study into how wildfires, extreme heat and wind patterns can deteriorate air quality.

She noted how in recent years smoke from wildfires in California and the American West has traveled across the United States all the way to the East Coast. At one point during the 2020 wildfire season, Singh said, residents in as much as 70 percent of the Western U.S. experienced negative air quality because of the blazes in the West.

“That wildfire smoke, you know, it has multiple harmful air pollutants,” Singh said. “We don’t even fully understand all the things that are in that smoke. But we know that it’s increasing fine particulate matter, which is something that directly affects our health. It’s something that we can inhale and it affects our cardiovascular and respiratory systems, and it can cause premature mortality and developmental harm—many, many different health impacts associated with that.”

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