Air Pollution Could Be Cutting Your Life Short, But How Much Depends On Where You Live

Students in Malaysia wear face masks. Aizuddin Saad/Shutterstock

The air we breathe may be slowly killing us.

That’s because it’s filled with tiny airborne particles called PM2.5 that are small enough to enter our lungs and bloodstream. Once inhaled, these particles can cause respiratory and cardiovascular issues, cancer, possibly dementia, and even death. Now, a new report drawing from two peer-reviewed studies suggests long-term exposure could be cutting our lives short by an average of 1.8 years.

"This life expectancy loss makes particulate pollution more devastating than communicable diseases like tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, behavioral killers like cigarette smoking, and even war," notes an accompanying report.

“Around the world today, people are breathing air that represents a serious risk to their health," said report author Michael Greenstone in a statement. "But the way this risk is communicated is very often opaque and confusing, translating air pollution concentrations into colors, like red, brown, orange, and green. What those colors mean for people’s wellbeing has always been unclear."

To calculate what they're calling the Air Quality Life Index, researchers pulled satellite data to map global particle concentrations between 1998 and 2016, focusing specifically on human-caused pollution from things like burning crops, fossil fuel combustion, and vehicle exhaust. They found nearly everyone is affected by pollution, but how much depends on where they are.

Particulate pollution is the single greatest threat to global human health. Air Quality Life Index/University of Chicago

Between 1970 and 2016, particulate matter decreased by 62 percent in the US, increasing life expectancy on average by 1.5 years. Even so, only 85 percent of the country currently breathes clean air, with California seeing some of the highest pollution levels that exceed international health standards. Though Americans can expect their lives to be shortened by 0.1 years on average, China and India are seeing much more drastic results. The two countries represent more than one-third of the global population but account for nearly three-quarters of all years lost due to particulate matter.

By and large, China is gaining footing in its war against pollution with a reduction in particulate pollution of 12 percent. They’re seeing improvements in human health too. In 2016, the average person would live 2.9 years longer if particulate air pollution met global standards, but that’s down from 3.4 years in 2013.

In India, fine particulates increased by 69 percent on average across the country since the late 1990s, reducing life expectancy by 4.3 years. Air quality in the capital city Delhi has some of the deadliest air quality conditions in the country. The average resident here will live 10 years less, while those in Beijing and Los Angeles will live almost six and one years less, respectively.

Overall, it presents a difficult challenge to tackle.

“While people can stop smoking and take steps to protect themselves from diseases, there is little they can individually do to protect themselves from the air they breathe,” Greenstone said. “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.” 

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