Air pollution takes more than two years off global life expectancy

New analysis finds particulate air pollution takes 2.2 years off global average life expectancy, or a combined 17 billion life years, relative to a world that met the World Health Organization guideline of 5 µg/m3.

This impact on life expectancy is comparable to that of smoking, more than three times that of alcohol use and unsafe water, six times that of HIV/AIDS, and 89 times that of conflict and terrorism.

The Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) analysis shows the impacts of pollution are most visible in South Asia, with around 44% of the world’s increase in pollution coming from India since 2013.

More than half of the life burden of pollution occurs in South Asia, where residents are expected to lose around 5 years of their lives on average if the current high levels of pollution persists.

grayscale photo of man smoking

‘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 2 years of life expectancy. 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,’ says Michael Greenstone, the Milton Friedman Distinguished Service Professor in Economics and creator of the AQLI along with colleagues at the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC).

‘Fortunately, history teaches us that it does not need to be this way. In many places around the planet, like the United States, strong policies, supported by an equally strong willingness for change, have succeeded in reducing air pollution.’

‘By updating the AQLI with the new WHO guideline based on the latest science, we have a better grasp on the true cost we are paying to breathe polluted air,’ adds AQLI Director Christa Hasenkopf. ‘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.’

Photo by Swarnavo Chakrabarti


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