"More people in the United States and other developed countries today will die from air pollution created by traffic than by traffic crashes themselves," said Devra Lee Davis, first author of the study appearing Friday in the journal Science. "We spend billions trying to prevent traffic crashes but we do not spend billions trying to control air pollution even though the effects are in fact greater."
Davis, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz School for Public Policy and Management in Pittsburgh, said ozone, particulates, carbon dioxide and other pollutants from the combustion of fossil fuels may affect the climate in coming decades. But she said her team found that they already are public health hazards.
"There are more than a thousand studies from 20 countries all showing that you can predict a certain death rate based on the amount of pollution," Davis said.
She said emissions from automobile engines and coal-burning power plants are causing people to die prematurely from asthma, heart disease and lung disorders, reports CBS News Correspondent Peter Maer.
"We hope that policy-makers will understand that energy decisions and technology decisions are fundamentally public health decisions," she said.
In the study, Davis and four co-authors researched the health effects of pollution from fossil-fuels on the rate of death in four cities Sao Paulo, Brazil; Mexico City; Santiago, Chile; and New York and found that adopting greenhouse gas abatement technologies now available would save 64,000 lives over the next 20 years in those cities.
It would also prevent 65,000 cases of chronic bronchitis and save about 37 million person-days of restricted or lost work, the researchers estimated.
Davis said although the study concentrated on just four cities, the conclusions probably could be applied to cities worldwide. She said the data are consistent with a World Health Organization study that estimated that air pollution would cause about 8 million deaths worldwide by 2020.
"Policies to mitigate (greenhouse gases) can yield substantive and immediate benefits to the 3 billion people currently residing in urban areas throughout the world," the study's authors claim.
"We're not talking about Buck Rogers-like, futuristic technologies" to reduce pollution from burning fossil fuels, said Davis. "If the technologies we now have on the shelf were adopted quickly, they would have an immediate effect on public health."
Dr. Jonathan Patz of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health said the study by Davi and her co-authors draws "an important conclusion."
"They show that air pollution does have an important effect on the mortality and morbidity of urban dwellers," he said. "It shows that there are significant health benefits to be had from reducing emissions from the burning of fossil fuels."
Carbon dioxide and other gases from the burning of coal and oil have been blamed by many researchers for warming of the global climate. Some have predicted long-term and varied global effects, including such phenomena as the melting glaciers, rising sea levels and recurring weather extremes.
However, some argue that policies to reduce pollution could have a greater impact on quality of life than the pollution itself, by raising taxes, restricting commerce, cutting payrolls and eliminating jobs.
Concerns like those were cited by President Bush in March when he said the United States would not participate in the emissions reductions called for in the Kyoto Protocol.
Some steps prompt other worries: the auto industry, for example, say raising fuel efficiency standards forces the production of lighter cars that are more dangerous.
However, WHO estimates that 3 million people die because of air pollution each year, 5 percent of the 55 million deaths that occur annually worldwide. Between 30 and 40 percent of asthma cases and 20-30 percent of all respiratory disease may be blamed on air pollution.
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