Cleaner Air = Longer LivesAir pollution reduces lifespans, and people in South Asia are the most affected
Even though heat waves, floods and wildfires are ravaging the planet, it is actually suspended particles in the air that pose the most serious immediate risk to human health, reducing average life spans across the world.
Moves to control carbon emissions by switching to renewable energy will help in also reducing pollution thereby improving public health and allowing billions of people around the world to live longer.
The latest data from the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) issued by the Energy Policy Institute of the University of Chicago shows that fine soot particles in the air that are less than 2.5 microns (PM2.5) in diameter are the most dangerous.
The report reveals that particulate pollution carries the greatest external risk to human health, with the impact on life expectancy comparable to that of smoking, more than 3 times that of alcohol use and unsafe water, and more than 5 times that of traffic accidents.
However, the risk is not spread equally across the world. Six countries in the world are at much greater risk than others and most of them are in Nepal’s neighbourhood.
“Three-quarters of air pollution’s impact on global life expectancy occurs in just six countries, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, China, Nigeria and Indonesia, where people lose one to more than six years off their lives because of the air they breathe,” says Michael Greenstone, Professor in Economics at the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC).
Even though awareness about the danger of pollution is growing, slow changes in state energy policy have not led to meaningful action. The pollution is also being transported across national boundaries, which means regional cooperation to improve air quality is as important.
The first priority is to provide citizens with real-time open air quality data, yet only 6.8% of the Asia knows how dirty their air is. Knowledge about pollution can create public pressure on governments to act.
As it is only one-third of the countries in Asia have air quality standards, the basic building block for policies, the AQLI report says. Investment in air quality infrastructure also does not match where air pollution is having its greatest toll on human life.
“Timely, reliable, open air quality data in particular can be the backbone of civil society and government clean air efforts—providing the information that people and governments lack and that allows for more informed policy decisions,” says Christa Hasenkopf, the director of AQLI and air quality programs at EPIC. “Fortunately, we see an immense opportunity to play a role in reversing this by better targeting—and increasing—our funding dollars to collaboratively build the infrastructure that is missing today.”
The release of the AQLI report comes just ahead of the UN’s International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies. While much of multilateral and bilateral development assistance goes to control of diseases like malaria and tuberculosis, the resources for pollution control are much less even though many more people die or are affected by dirty air.
The report singles out South Asia, especially its densely-populated northern areas as suffering the deadliest impact of pollution. More than a quarter of the global population in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan are the most affected, losing five years of their lives on average.
Although China had some of the worst air quality 20 years ago, the report cites its remarkable success in reducing pollution by 42.3% since 2013, when it declared a ‘war against pollution’. The average Chinese citizen can now expect to live 2.2 years longer.
Even industrialised countries have high air pollution levels. Americans are exposed to 65% less particulate pollution than in 1970 before the passage of the Clean Air Act, yet 96% percent of the country still doesn’t meet the WHO’s new guideline of 5 µg/m³. In 2021, California was the most polluted state, not because of vehicular pollution but wildfires.
Europeans were exposed to 23% less pollution than in 1998, improving their life expectancy.
But even then, most European cities do not meet the WHO’s new guideline. Eastern Europeans are living 7.2 months less than people in the west due to dirtier air.