Sep 1, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Air pollution shaves off 2.2 years of average life expectancy worldwide

The average person is losing about 2.2 years of life expectancy due to air pollution, according to new research by the University of Chicago's Energy Policy Institute.

Driving the news: The Air Quality Life Index (AQLI), published Wednesday, shows that the burden of harmful air pollution is unevenly distributed — with China making rapid, measurable progress in cleaning up its air, and other global hotspots now emerging in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

  • There's also increasing evidence showing that climate change caused by the same fossil fuel burning that is harming people's health is affecting air quality in developed nations through newly emerging feedbacks.
  • The AQLI attempts to clearly indicate how emissions of tiny particles, called fine particulates, are having an affect on people's health worldwide.
  • The most hazardous particulate matter is known as PM2.5, due to its tiny size of 2.5 micrometers, much smaller than the width of a human hair. These particles, generated from fossil fuels burning and other sources, are harmful to human health.

Between the lines: According to EPIC director Michael Greenstone, when considered across the global population, air pollution is robbing people of 17 billion years of life expectancy.

  • "It may be impossible to think of some other feature of our lives that we have caused that is robbing all of us of so much wellness and life. And that's just the reduction of life expectancy, people while they're alive they're leading sicker lives," Greenstone told Axios.
  • Per the report, in many areas, air pollution is an even bigger public health threat than tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and cigarette smoking.

What they found: According to the AQLI, which is based on peer-reviewed studies, China still has major air pollution woes, but it is seeing a significant enough reduction in emissions of fine particulate matter to show up in the data.

  • If China were to meet air quality standards set by the World Health Organization, the study shows that people would live an average of 2.6 years longer. That compares to the 2018 edition of this report, which found a figure of 2.9 years for China.
  • Particulate pollution in China has declined by 29% since 2013 — adding about 1.5 years onto average life expectancy, "assuming these reductions are sustained," the report finds.
  • The most urgent improvements in air quality were identified for countries in South and Southeast Asia — including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.

By the numbers: Indian residents would gain an additional 5.9 years, on average, in life expectancy if they were to breathe air in accordance with WHO standards.

  • Bangladesh would have a life expectancy gain of 5.4 years and Nepal five years.
  • Sub-Saharan Africa is also an air pollution hotspot. In Ghana, the gain in life expectancy from reducing air pollution would be the same as China, 2.6 years, the report finds.
  • In Southeast Asia, cities including Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City and Jakarta, average residents would gain two to five years of life expectancy if pollution levels dropped to WHO guidelines.
  • In the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, the report states, air quality is similar to South Asia.

What they're saying: "Air pollution is a choice, and we now have really good evidence from a couple decades ago from Japan, Europe and the United States, that you can greatly reduce it," Greenstone said.

  • "The health impacts of air pollution are largely concentrated in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. And those guys are going to have to decide for themselves what they want to do."

The intrigue: One new trend identified in the report is the interaction between climate change and air pollution, with one worsening the other.

  • In the U.S., millions have been adversely affected by hazardous wildfire smoke during the severe western wildfire seasons of the past few years. On Tuesday, as a veil of smoke could be seen on satellite imagery enshrouding areas from Nevada to Nebraska, for example.
  • Studies show that climate change has been behind much of the increase in large wildfires in the West in recent years, as the region has become mired in the worst drought so far this century at the same time as record heat has set in.
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