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Data: Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago; Map: Harry Stevens/Axios

Globally, air pollution reduces average life expectancy by 1.8 years, according to a new index developed by the University of Chicago. The metric, known as the Air Quality Life Index, or AQLI, attempts to clearly indicate how emissions of tiny particles, called particulates, are having an affect on people's health worldwide.

Why it matters: The report comes at a time when millions in California are being forced to wear protective masks to shield themselves from particulate pollution originating from the state's deadly wildfires. It also comes at the height of smog season in India, a country that ranks high on the list of most-affected nations, according to the new index.

The big picture: Based on the AQLI, which was developed on peer-reviewed studies but has not itself been published in a scientific journal, particulate pollution is the single greatest threat to human health worldwide with regard to life expectancy. It shaves more years off people's lives on average than tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and smoking cigarettes, according to the authors of the new report.

  • Particulate pollution chiefly comes from burning fossil fuels for energy.
  • The biggest health threat from power plants, factories and vehicles is what's known as fine particulate matter, or PM2.5 — particles that are so small they can easily be breathed in and lodged deep into the lungs.
  • Such particles can cause cardiovascular problems, aggravate pre-existing conditions like asthma, and increase mortality from cancer and heart disease.

Details: Researchers created the AQLI in order to better translate traditional warnings of poor air quality into public health impacts.

“The AQLI tells citizens and policymakers how particulate pollution is affecting them and their communities and reveals the benefits of policies to reduce particulate pollution. It takes particulate air pollution concentrations and converts them into perhaps the most important metric that exists — life expectancy.”
— Michael Greenstone, director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, in a press release
  • According to the newly developed index, people in India would live 4.3 years longer if their country met clean air guidelines set by the World Health Organization (WHO). Doing so would move the country's average life expectancy from 69 to 73.
  • In the U.S., the report found that about one-third of the country's population lives in areas that are not in compliance with WHO guidelines, and that U.S. citizens would live up to a year longer if they were brought into alignment with those figures.

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