Transboundary health impacts of transported global air pollution and international trade

  • Nature volume 543, pages 705709 (30 March 2017)
  • doi:10.1038/nature21712
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Millions of people die every year from diseases caused by exposure to outdoor air pollution1,2,3,4,5. Some studies have estimated premature mortality related to local sources of air pollution6,7, but local air quality can also be affected by atmospheric transport of pollution from distant sources8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18. International trade is contributing to the globalization of emission and pollution as a result of the production of goods (and their associated emissions) in one region for consumption in another region14,19,20,21,22. The effects of international trade on air pollutant emissions23, air quality14 and health24 have been investigated regionally, but a combined, global assessment of the health impacts related to international trade and the transport of atmospheric air pollution is lacking. Here we combine four global models to estimate premature mortality caused by fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution as a result of atmospheric transport and the production and consumption of goods and services in different world regions. We find that, of the 3.45 million premature deaths related to PM2.5 pollution in 2007 worldwide, about 12 per cent (411,100 deaths) were related to air pollutants emitted in a region of the world other than that in which the death occurred, and about 22 per cent (762,400 deaths) were associated with goods and services produced in one region for consumption in another. For example, PM2.5 pollution produced in China in 2007 is linked to more than 64,800 premature deaths in regions other than China, including more than 3,100 premature deaths in western Europe and the USA; on the other hand, consumption in western Europe and the USA is linked to more than 108,600 premature deaths in China. Our results reveal that the transboundary health impacts of PM2.5 pollution associated with international trade are greater than those associated with long-distance atmospheric pollutant transport.

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This work is supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (41625020, 41629501, 41422502, 41222036 and 41541039) and China’s National Basic Research Program (2014CB441301 and 2014CB441303). Q.Z. and K.H. are supported by the Collaborative Innovation Center for Regional Environmental Quality and the Cyrus Tang Foundation. The work at Argonne National Laboratory acknowledges the Modeling, Analysis and Predictability (MAP) programme of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) under Proposal No. 08-MAP-0143, for which we thank D. Considine (NASA) and M. Chin (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center). H.H. acknowledges the support of the National Natural Science Foundation of China (71322304). Z.L. acknowledges the support from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (41501605). D.G. acknowledges the support from the National Key R&D Program of China (2016YFA0602604), the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ES/L016028/1), the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NE/N00714X/1), and the British Academy (AF150310). We thank T. Xue for discussions on statistics.

Author information

Author notes

    • Qiang Zhang
    • , Xujia Jiang
    •  & Dan Tong

    These authors contributed equally to this work.


  1. Ministry of Education Key Laboratory for Earth System Modeling, Department of Earth System Science, Tsinghua University, Beijing 100084, China

    • Qiang Zhang
    • , Xujia Jiang
    • , Dan Tong
    • , Steven J. Davis
    • , Hongyan Zhao
    • , Guannan Geng
    • , Tong Feng
    • , Kebin He
    •  & Dabo Guan
  2. State Key Joint Laboratory of Environment Simulation and Pollution Control, School of Environment, Tsinghua University, Beijing 100084, China

    • Xujia Jiang
    • , Bo Zheng
    •  & Kebin He
  3. Department of Earth System Science, University of California, Irvine, California 92697, USA

    • Steven J. Davis
  4. Energy Systems Division, Argonne National Laboratory, Argonne, Illinois 60439, USA

    • Zifeng Lu
    •  & David G. Streets
  5. Laboratory for Climate and Ocean-Atmosphere Studies, Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, School of Physics, Peking University, Beijing 100871, China

    • Ruijing Ni
    • , Yingying Yan
    •  & Jintai Lin
  6. School of Population and Public Health, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia V6T 1Z3, Canada

    • Michael Brauer
  7. Department of Physics and Atmospheric Science, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia B3H 4R2, Canada

    • Aaron van Donkelaar
    •  & Randall V. Martin
  8. Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA

    • Randall V. Martin
  9. Institute of Energy, Environment, and Economy, Tsinghua University, Beijing 100084, China

    • Hong Huo
  10. Resnick Sustainability Institute, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California 91125, USA

    • Zhu Liu
  11. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey 08544, USA

    • Da Pan
  12. School of Public Health, Fudan University, Shanghai, China

    • Haidong Kan
  13. State Environmental Protection Key Laboratory of Sources and Control of Air Pollution Complex, Beijing 100084, China

    • Kebin He
  14. School of International Development, University of East Anglia, Norwich NR4 7TJ, UK

    • Dabo Guan


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Q.Z., J.L. and K.H. conceived the study. Q.Z. led the study. Z.Lu and D.G.S. provided emissions data. M.B., A.v.D. and R.V.M. provided PM2.5 exposure data. D.T., H.Z., T.F. and D.G. calculated emissions. G.G. conducted GEOS-Chem simulations. X.J. conducted estimates of health impacts. Q.Z., X.J., S.J.D., G.G. and J.L. interpreted the data. Q.Z., X.J., D.T., S.J.D., H.Z. and G.G. wrote the paper with input from all co-authors.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Qiang Zhang or Steven J. Davis or Jintai Lin or Kebin He.

Reviewer Information Nature thanks G. Janssens-Maenhout, P. Jha and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher's note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Text and Data, additional references, Supplementary Figures 1-10, Supplementary Tables 5, 7 and 8 (see separate excel files for Supplementary Tables 1-4 and 6).

Excel files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Table 1

    This file contains country lists in the alternate emission inventory and the GTAP model, and the corresponding classification of 13 regions.

  2. 2.

    Supplementary Table 2

    This file contains the sources category of the emission inventory in this study.

  3. 3.

    Supplementary Table 3

    This file contains mapping structure from emission inventory to GTAP sectors.

  4. 4.

    Supplementary Table 4

    This file contains mapping structure from EDGAR sectors to GTAP sectors.

  5. 5.

    Supplementary Table 6

    This file contains camparison of transboundary transport of PM2.5 with the HTAP study.


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