Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Corporate gatekeepers and big tech monopolists are making it more difficult than ever for independent media to survive. Please chip in today.

A child wears a face mask to protect from air pollution in Indonesia

A child wears a face mask in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia due to ait pollution from peat fires. (Photo: CIFOR/Flickr/cc)

Billions of People Could Live Years Longer If Policymakers Reduce Air Pollution: Study

In the northern part of India, where nearly 250 million people live, the average person could live eight years longer if air pollution was reduced.

Julia Conley

A new study released Wednesday by researchers at the University of Chicago showed that air pollution is cutting short the average global citizen's life by more than two years, with people in parts of the world dying as many as eight years earlier than they would without exposure to pollution.

The burning of coal is the biggest driver of deadly air pollution, according to the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI), and people in countries around the world could live longer lives if policymakers drastically reduced fossil fuel emissions and ensured exposure to pollution was kept below the amount deemed acceptable by the World Health Organization.
 

"The combustion of the same fossil fuels that releases life-threatening air pollution also involves the release of greenhouse gases that increase the odds of disruptive climate change."
—AQLI

In India, the average person could live six years longer if pollution from some of the smallest particulate matter (PM 2.5) was reduced to acceptable levels. In the northern part of the country—home to 248 million people—life expectancy would increase by eight years.
 
More than 500 million people in places including Nepal, Peru, and Indonesia would live an average of five years longer if their governments were to comply with the guidelines, and more than one billion people would live at least three years longer on average. 
 
"There is no greater current risk to human health" than air pollution, said Prof. Michael Greenstone of the university's Energy Policy Institute, who led the study. 
 
The research revealed "very worrying data," Kwame McKenzie of the health policy charity Wellesley Institute said.
 
PM 2.5 pollution shortens more lives around the globe than smoking, unsafe water and poor sanitation, car accidents, and HIV/AIDS, according to the research.
 
The WHO recommends that atmospheric levels of PM 2.5—fine matter which can travel down the respiratory tracts and into the lungs and even the bloodstream if a person is exposed—are limited to 10 micrograms per cubic meter. The researchers found that the average global citizen is exposed to concentrations of 32 micrograms per cubic meter.
 
The researchers noted that relatively little attention has been paid to the public health threat posed by air pollution around the world, particularly in parts of the Global South where policymakers and NGOs are focused on other public health crises:
The health discourse in Sub-Saharan Africa has centered on infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and malaria. About 10% of health expenditures in the region go towards combating HIV/AIDS or malaria. However, a comparison shows that particulate pollution’s impact on life expectancy is no less serious. In Nigeria, air pollution is second only to HIV/AIDS in terms of its impact on life expectancy—shaving off more years than malaria and water and sanitation concerns. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, it is second only to malaria. In Ghana, it ranks as the deadliest of these threats, while in Cote d’Ivoire it shortens life by about the same amount as those communicable diseases.
The researchers emphasized that it's within policymakers' control to improve pollution levels and life expectancy, as China has in recent years. The country has reduced pollution levels by nearly 30% since 2013 and has added 1.5 years to the average life expectancy.
 
In the U.S., the study says, air pollution was reduced by about 66% since the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970, and Americans' life expectancy has gone up since then by 1.6 years. 
 
"The improvements that China was able to bring about in such a short period of time: six or seven years or so," Kenneth Lee, director of the AQLI, told The Hill. "Whereas, it took decades for the U.S. to make those changes."
 
In the U.S., the researchers noted, a feedback loop has emerged in recent years as wildfires fueled by the climate crisis have grown larger and more common.
 
"In the U.S., millions have been adversely affected by hazardous wildfire smoke during the severe western wildfire seasons of the past few years," Axios reported. "On Tuesday, as a veil of smoke could be seen on satellite imagery enshrouding areas from Nevada to Nebraska, for example."
 
"The combustion of the same fossil fuels that releases life-threatening air pollution also involves the release of greenhouse gases that increase the odds of disruptive climate change," according to the report.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

After Kids Killed in Texas, Dems Declare 'Pass Gun Safety Legislation Now'

"Congress has a moral responsibility to end gun violence now," said Sen. Ed Markey. "To those who refuse to act, there are no excuses. Only complicity and shame."

Jessica Corbett ·


At Least 19 Children, 2 Adults Killed in Texas Elementary School Shooting

"This has become part of who we are as a country," said Julián Castro. "The free availability of guns has not made us safer in the United States or here in the state of Texas."

Brett Wilkins ·


House Dems to Pelosi: Hold Vote for Bill Expanding Social Security

"It is Congress' responsibility to ensure that Social Security's benefits are protected and improved," says a letter to the speaker. "It's time we deliver."

Jessica Corbett ·


Two Years After George Floyd Murder, Biden to Issue Executive Order on Police Reform

"The entire culture and mentality needs to change to bring these words to life, and to save lives," said one civil liberties advocate.

Julia Conley ·


'Wholesale Fraud' in Michigan Governor Race Could Disqualify GOP Candidates

"It looks like the Republican clown car may be losing a few occupants."

Jessica Corbett ·

Common Dreams Logo