"Particulate pollution remains the world's greatest external risk to human health, with the impact on life expectancy comparable to that of smoking."
High and rising levels of global particulate matter pollution—caused by wildfires, the combustion of fossil fuels, and other factors—are cutting 2.3 years off of the average human's life expectancy, according to research unveiled Tuesday.
The latest version of the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI), produced annually by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC), estimates that fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution's impact on global human life expectancy is "comparable to that of smoking, more than three times that of alcohol use and unsafe water, more than five times that of transport injuries like car crashes, and more than seven times that of HIV/AIDS."
Despite the terrible impact of air pollution on human health, governments around the world are doing little to address the crisis, according to EPIC's research.
"While there is a large global fund for HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis that annually disburses 4 billion USD toward the issues, there is no equivalent set of coordinated resources for air pollution," the new report states. "The entire continent of Africa receives under 300,000 USD in philanthropic funds toward air pollution. Just 1.4 million USD goes to Asia (outside of China and India). Europe, the United States, and Canada receive 34 million USD, according to the Clean Air Fund."
Michael Greenstone, a creator of the AQLI, noted in a statement that "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."
In the United States, 20 of the 30 most polluted counties in 2021 were in California, which saw more than 8,800 fires that year. Plumas County, California was the most polluted area of the U.S. in 2021.
The new research estimates that Plumas residents could gain 2.1 years of life expectancy if air quality in the California county is brought into line with World Health Organization (WHO) air quality standards.
EPIC's report notes that the annual average PM2.5 level worldwide "has shifted between 3.8 to 7.2 times the WHO guideline, making air pollution the greatest external threat to human health globally."
Reducing global air pollution to levels recommended by the WHO would save a combined 17.8 billion life-years worldwide, according to EPIC.