Benchmark study says air pollution is the greatest global threat to human health

Smoke rising from industrial chimneys
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Air pollution is more dangerous to the health of the average person on planet Earth than smoking or alcohol. What’s more, the threat is worsening in its global epicenter – South Asia – even as China quickly improves. However, the level of funding set aside to confront the challenge is a fraction of the amount set aside to fight infectious diseases.

This is according to a new study from the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC). The research used a 2021 cutoff for its data.

Fine particulate air pollution

EPIC’s annual Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) report showed that fine particulate air pollution remains the “greatest external threat to public health”. This type of pollution is created by vehicle exhausts, industrial emissions, and wildfires, amongst other sources.

Fine particulate matter has a diameter of 2.5 microns or less (PM2.5). Air pollution concentrations are detected by satellite, and then fed into the AQLI metric. This, in turn, calculates their impact on life expectancy based on peer-reviewed methods.

Research has linked fine particulate pollution to lung disease, heart disease, strokes, and cancer. If the world were to permanently reduce these pollutants to meet the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guideline limit, the average person would add 2.3 years onto their life expectancy. Tobacco use, by comparison, reduces global life expectancy by 2.2 years. Meanwhile, child and maternal malnutrition is responsible for a reduction of 1.6 years.

Asia and Africa bear the greatest burden. However, they have some of the weakest infrastructure to deliver citizens timely, accurate data. They also receive tiny slices of an already small global philanthropic pie. For example, the entire continent of Africa receives less than $300,000 to tackle air pollution. While there is an international financing partnership called the Global Fund that disburses $4bn annually on HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis, there is no equivalent for air pollution.

Bangladesh tops ranking

Globally, South Asia is the worst affected region. Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan are – in order – the top four most-polluted countries in terms of annualized, population-weighted averages of fine particulate matter.

Read on...

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In Bangladesh, the average PM2.5 levels were 74 micrograms per cubic meter. Its residents would gain 6.8 years of life if their country brought this down to WHO guidelines of 5 micrograms per cubic meter. India’s capital Delhi, meanwhile, is the “most polluted megacity in the world”. Its annual average particulate pollution is some 126.5 micrograms per cubic meter.

China, on the other hand, “has had remarkable progress in terms of its war on air pollution”, which began in 2014. Its air pollution dropped 42.3% between 2013 and 2021. If China sustains these improvements, its average citizen should live 2.2 years longer.

Wildfire threats

However, climate change is increasing the threat of wildfires through hotter temperatures and drier conditions. These fires are causing pollution spikes from the western United States to Latin America and Southeast Asia.

For example, California’s historic wildfire season of 2021 saw Plumas County receive an average concentration of fine particulate matter more than five times over the WHO guideline.

All of this goes to show the interconnected nature of the threat facing humanity. Polluting emissions worsen global warming, which increases the chance of wildfires, which release more fine particulates into the air. It is only by addressing our deadly reliance on fossil fuels that we can hope to curb the worst effects of this vicious cycle.

Additional reporting via Agence France-Presse

Featured image via Unsplash/Ella Ivanescu

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