Air Pollution Is Taking Years Off The Life-Expectancy Of Billions Of People, New Report Says

A report published on Wednesday shows that air pollution is slashing years from billions of people’s lives around the world and is a greater threat to life expectancy than smoking, HIV/AIDS or war.

In countries where air pollution levels are below standards set by the World Health Organization (WHO), people are, on average, losing 2.2 years of their lives, CNN reported.

India has the highest levels of air pollution globally, and its citizens are likely to lose more years than any other country, with 6 years of life on average shortened, according to the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI), published in an annual report by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC).

After India comes Bangladesh, where residents lose an average of 5.4 years of life expectancy, followed by Nepal (5 years), Pakistan (3.9 years) and Singapore (3.8 years). Asia had the top five countries with the highest average number of years lost. Over the last seven years, China has reduced air pollution; however, polluted air has still reduced 2.6 years from its people’s lifespan.

The scientists said that air pollution was primarily driven by the combustion of fossil fuels creating a global problem that requires strong policies at every front. Currently, the climate crisis is contributing to air pollution through wildfires, according to the study. 

The study also shows how the environment in the world was cleaner when the pandemic forced a pause on air travel and lowered road traffic and production. However, certain locations suffered from wildfires aggravated by hotter weather. For example, in the US, smog from wildfires in some western states travelled across the country, damaging the air quality as far away as New York City.

“These remarkable events illustrate that air pollution is not only a global challenge but is also intertwined with climate change. Both challenges are primarily caused by the same culprit: fossil fuel emissions from power plants, vehicles and other industrial sources,” the report said. Governments worldwide need to urgently implement policies to reduce their dependence on fuels like coal, oil and gas.

“Air pollution is the greatest external threat to human health on the planet, and that is not widely recognised, or not recognised with the force and vigour that one might expect,” said Prof Michael Greenstone at the University of Chicago. Greenstone and colleagues developed the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI), which converts air pollution levels into their impact on life expectancy.

With today’s air pollution, an ordinary global citizen will lose 2.2 years of life, adding up to 17 billion years lost, Greenstone said. “What else on the planet is causing people to lose 17bn years of life?”

“Furthermore, we’re not just letting it happen; we’re actually causing it,” he said. “The most striking thing is that there are big countries where, effectively, a combination of the government and [societal] norms are choosing to allow people to live really dramatically shorter and sicker lives.” He said switching to cleaner energy and enforcing air quality measures on existing power plants have cut pollution in many countries.

In Central and West Africa, the harmful effects of air pollution on life expectancy was “comparable to those of well-known threats like HIV/AIDS and malaria,” the report found.

In 2013, China began a “war against pollution”; it has reduced its pollution by 29%. That reduction — if sustained — has won back 1.5 years of life expectancy for Chinese people, taking them down to an average loss of 2.6 years.

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