About 90% of the population in low and middle income countries are exposed to dangerous levels of ambient air pollution, which in 2013 cost the global economy about $225bn in lost labour income, according to a new report.

The Cost of Air Pollution: Strengthening the Economic Case for Action, a joint study by the World Bank and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), concluded that air pollution was the fourth leading risk factor worldwide for premature deaths.

It estimated that in 2013 5.5 million lives were lost to diseases associated with outdoor and household air pollution, causing human suffering and reducing economic development.

According to the study, deaths related to ambient air pollution have increased in heavily populated, fast-urbanising regions, while deaths related to cooking and heating homes with solid fuels had remained constant despite development gains and improvements in health services.

Diseases attributed to both types of air pollution caused one in ten deaths in 2013, or more than six times the number of deaths caused by malaria.

Although pollution-related deaths strike mainly young children and the elderly, premature deaths also result in lost labour income for working-age men and women.

The report found that annual losses associated with air pollution amounted to 0.83% of gross domestic product (GDP) in South Asia; 0.61% in sub-Saharan Africa, where air pollution impairs the earning potential of younger populations; and 0.25% in East Asia and the Pacific, where the population is ageing.

Laura Tuck, vice president for sustainable development at the World Bank, said that, by translating the cost of premature deaths into an economic language that resonates with policymakers, the study would trigger action and resources would be devoted to improving air quality.

‘By supporting healthier cities and investments in cleaner sources of energy, we can reduce dangerous emissions, slow climate change, and most importantly save lives,’ she said.