Particulate air pollution is reducing global life expectancy by more than two years: analysis

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(The Hill) – Particulate air pollution is reducing life expectancy by 2.2 years globally compared to a hypothetical world that meets international health guidelines, a new report has found.

Worldwide exposure to fine particulate patter — PM 2.5, or particles with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less — has an impact on par with that of smoking, more than three times that of alcohol use and unsafe water, according to the University of Chicago’s 2022 Air Quality Life Index.

The life expectancy effect of this type of pollution amounts to six times that of HIV/AIDS and 89 times that of conflict and terrorism, researchers observed.

“It would be a global emergency if Martians came to Earth and sprayed a substance that caused the average person on the planet to lose more than two years of life expectancy,” Michael Greenstone, index co-creator and an economics professor at the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute, said in a statement.

“This is similar to the situation that prevails in many parts of the world, except we are spraying the substance, not some invaders from outer space,” Greenstone added.

PM 2.5 poses such a threat that the World Health Organization (WHO) recently decreased what it deems to be a safe level of exposure from 10 micrograms per cubic meter to 5 micrograms per cubic meter, the authors noted.

Despite the fact that the economy incurred significant losses during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, average PM 2.5 pollution remained largely unchanged from the year before, the researchers stressed. Meanwhile, growing evidence has emerged that even low levels of air pollution can damage human health, the authors added.

These circumstances led the WHO to change its guidelines, bringing about 97.3 percent of the global population within the unsafe realm, according to the report.

The worst impacts of PM 2.5 exposure are visible in South Asia, where more than half of the total life burden of pollution occurs worldwide, the researchers found.

Residents of the region are projected to lose about five years off their lives on average if countries maintain today’s high levels of pollution. Since 2013, about 44 percent of the global rise in pollution has come from India, according to the study.

Like South Asia, 99.9 percent of Southeast Asia is experiencing unsafe levels of pollution — with rates increasing in a single year by as much as a quarter in some areas, the researchers found.

Residents of the Mandalay, Myanmar; Hanoi, Vietnam; and Jakarta, Indonesia regions, which are suffering the greatest impacts, are expected to lose three to four years from their life expectancies on average, the authors noted.

More than 97 percent of Central and West Africa is considered unsafe by the WHO’s recent guidelines, with the researchers determining that those residents in the most polluted areas could lose as much as five years from their lives average.

If China began meeting the WHO guideline, residents there could gain 2.6 years of life expectancy on average, according to the study. The authors acknowledged, however, that China has made significant progress, with particulate pollution levels falling by almost 40 percent between 2013 and 2020 — and by about 9 percent from 2019 to 2020 alone. 

Although strong enforcement measures have helped reduce particulate pollution in both the U.S. and Europe, about 92.8 percent of the former and 95.5 percent of the latter fail to meet the WHO’s new guideline, the authors found.

In the U.S., average particulate pollution level was slightly above the WHO guideline of 5 micrograms per cubic meter, at 7.1 micrograms per cubic meter, while that of Europe was 11.2 micrograms per cubic meter.

By meeting the revised WHO guideline, American life expectancy would improve on average by 2.5 months, while that of Europeans would improve by 7.3 months.

Integrating the new guidelines into the Air Quality Life Index provides “a better grasp on the true cost we are paying to breathe polluted air,” the index’s director, Christa Hasenkopf, said in a statement.

“Now that our understanding of pollution’s impact on human health has improved, there is a stronger case for governments to prioritize it as an urgent policy issue,” Hasenkopf added.

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