air pollution

Air pollution takes a year off the average global life expectancy according to study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters.

The study which particularly looked at distribution of a particulate matter called PM2.5 across the globe and its effects on overall global life expectancy found that for those living in the US and the UK, life expectancy drops to an average of four months – but for those living in Asia and Africa, the situation is even worse.

PM2.5 is a particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns. These fine particles can come from a number of sources such as – power plants, cars and trucks, forest fires, agriculture and industrial emissions. And because of how tiny they are, the particles can stay in the air longer than heavy particles, increasing the chance of us inhaling them.

PM2.5 can enter deep into the lungs, and studies have shown that exposure to PM2.5 is associated with increased risk of heart attacks, strokes, respiratory diseases and cancer.

“The fact that fine particle air pollution is a major global killer is already well-known,” said Joshua Apte of the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin. “And we all care about how long we live. Here, we were able to systematically identify how air pollution also substantially shortens lives around the world. What we found is that air pollution has a very large effect on survival — on average about a year globally.”

Upper panel shows how air pollution is reducing human life expectancy around the world. Lower panel shows gains in life expectancy that could be reached by simply bringing down PM2.5 air pollution to levels recommended by the World Health Organization. Image: Cockrell School of Engineering, The University of Texas at Austin.

For the study, Apte and his team used data from the Global Burden of Disease Study – research program of disease burden that measures mortality and disability from major diseases, injuries, and risk factors. They used it to determine PM2.5 air pollution exposure and its consequences in 185 countries.

The team also examined the impact of life expectancy for each country as well as on a global scale. Their findings showed that it took an average of four months off the average lifespan for the US and the UK– but countries in Asia and Africa saw it worse. In Russia, it cut the average life expectancy by nine months, and in India, by one-and-a-half years and in Egypt – almost two years.

Apte believes simply reducing PM2.5 air pollution could increase life expectancy as much as finding cures for lung and breast cancer.

“For example, it’s considerably larger than the benefit in survival we might see if we found cures for both lung and breast cancer combined,” he said. “In countries like India and China, the benefit for elderly people of improving air quality would be especially large. For much of Asia, if air pollution were removed as a risk for death, 60-year-olds would have a 15 percent to 20 percent higher chance of living to age 85 or older.”

“A body count saying 90,000 Americans or 1.1 million Indians die per year from air pollution is large but faceless,” he said. “Saying that, on average, a population lives a year less than they would have otherwise — that is something relatable.”