Photo: Getty

In Africa, neither AIDS nor malaria is the leading killer. Dust is.

Researchers with the Earth Institute at Columbia University have found that air pollution—particularly dust blowing off the Sahara—is likely the leading killer on the continent. More than a million Africans are estimated to die every year from air pollution, compared with 760,000 deaths a year from AIDS. The team presented these findings during the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting last week, but is preparing to submit the research to a peer-reviewed journal.

Dust isn’t the only air pollution source on the continent, either. The practice of crop burning to clear fields and prep the soil for next harvest also spews particulate matter into the air. And we already know how dangerous particulate matter can be once it’s inhaled into the lungs. It can cause a variety of respiratory ailments and, ultimately, shorten lifespans.

“I think it’s very striking that air pollution’s overall mortality is the same order of magnitude as AIDS,” said Susanne Bauer, a researcher with the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies who presented these findings. “There are a lot of initiatives to fight AIDS, to fight malaria, but air pollution is certainly under-addressed on that continent.”

Fires burning and the resulting smoke in central Africa on June 27, 2017. Image: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center / Flickr

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Bauer and her team studied where biomass burning occurs in Africa and where Saharan dust emissions move, using climate models and satellite data. Then, they followed where the smoke ends up. After controlling for population density, age distribution, and risk factors from other diseases, the team came up with an annual estimate for the number of deaths attributable to air pollution: 1.2 million.

Within that, 70,000 premature deaths were attributable to crop burning. A separate 320,000 deaths result from vehicles or factories. Once those are removed from the equation, we’re left with roughly 800,000 deaths—that’s how many lives are shortened due to Saharan dust and other natural pollutants, like sea salt from the ocean and volcanic particles, Bauer told Earther.

These results are in line with growing evidence that air pollution is an enormous killer worldwide.

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In 2016, a study found that air pollution is responsible for 5.5 million deaths a year. Countries like India and China saw a larger proportion of their population die from pollution compared to the rest of the world, but a massive number of lives were lost at the hands of pollution across the globe. Earlier this year, a separate study estimated an even larger number of premature deaths: 9 million.

The United States is by no means safe from the impacts of air pollution, either—especially now that the Trump administration is attempting to repeal the Clean Power Plan and regulations on air pollution sources (like coal plants) while installing industry shills who say pollution is actually good for you. Exposure to particulate matter is hurting health among Medicare recipients in the U.S., especially among low-income communities and communities of color.

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In Africa, more analysis of pollution’s impacts is needed, especially when it comes to the specific impacts of different types of particulate matter. More attention should also be given to solutions.

“We can’t get rid of the desert or pluck volcanoes, so you have to maybe think about warning the population about big [dust] storms,” Bauer told Earther. Natural sources of pollution are something authorities can help communities prepare for so that they’re not impacted as heavily.

As for the man-made stuff? The 2016 World Economic Outlook Special Report highlighted that poverty is a major driver of air pollution in sub-Saharan Africa, where biomass burning is used for cooking and lighting. The first step to reducing these emissions is clear: access to modern energy and cleaner tech.