The Health & Economic Impacts of Ambient Air Quality in Malaysia

Air pollution in Malaysia is caused by emissions from a growing number of sources from industrial manufacturing, power generation, vehicles, and open burning activities. Additionally, biomass burning and forest fires in the country and in neighbouring countries contribute to the seasonal transboundary haze incidents that often cause a spike in air pollution from July to October have not been sufficiently addressed.

A new study by CREA and Greenpeace Malaysia found that an estimated 32,000 avoidable deaths occur in Malaysia every year as a result of ambient air pollution. The estimated annual economic cost as a result of healthcare and medical spending and losses in economic productivity following premature death is estimated at MYR 303 billion (US$ 73 billion) — or 20% of the country’s GDP in 2019. 

While progress has been made in improving Malaysia’s air quality in recent years, more ambitious targets and policies for cleaner air are needed, especially as the World Health Organization (WHO) updated its recommended ambient air quality guidelines for the first time since 2005. Any and all efforts to improve air quality will yield massive health and economic savings for the country:

  • Meeting the new and most protective 2021 WHO Guidelines for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) would save 22,000 lives per year. Other impacts such as sick days taken due to air pollution-linked illnesses, low birth weights and preterm births, and years lived with disabilities would be reduced by more than 75%.
  • Interim targets will be an important stepping stone. Meeting the WHO’s 2005 guideline values would already decrease premature deaths by 38% annually, saving 12,200 lives per year in comparison to air pollution at the current, observed levels. 
  • The economic savings from improved air quality would also be substantial: An estimated MYR 124 billion (US$ 30 Billion) per year would be saved if air quality in Malaysia met the WHO 2005 Guidelines.
  • With the 2021 WHO guidelines, the economic cost for Malaysians would be reduced by a third annually, saving MYR 212 billion (US$ 51 Billion) in air pollution-related costs per year.

ERRATUM: Figures 3 and 4 of this report have been corrected. The new charts reflect PM2.5 Concentrations in the largest cities in Malaysia for which CREA has data for. The cities included in the original graphics (June 8, 2022 version of the report) were mislabelled as the “most populated cities in Malaysia”.