Report: Air pollution reduces life expectancy by 20 months worldwide

BOSTON, Massachusetts—Will the development of environmental policies today ensure a greener Earth within the next few generations? Don’t hold your breath, researchers associated with the State of Global Air 2019 might answer. A child born today could expect to see his or her life expectancy reduced by 20 months, thanks to air pollution.

            The State of Global Air 2019 report, issued on April 3, stated air pollution is collectively responsible for reducing the average worldwide life expectancy by 20 months. Air pollution, accordingly, would rival smoking as a threat on human health.

            “The impacts of air pollution exposure on life expectancy are substantial. Air pollution reduces life expectancy by almost as much as active tobacco smoking,” the State of Global Air 2019 report said.

            Researchers pointed out the areas most likely to suffer from air pollution deaths are South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

            “In regions where ambient air pollution is high and cooking with solid fuels is common, the reduction in life expectancy reflects the double burden from both ambient and household air pollution,” the published report stated. “In South Asia, for example, household air pollution contributes to an additional life expectancy loss of about 1 year and 3 months, bringing the total life expectancy loss from air pollution to 2 years and 6 months.”

            Life expectancy could be prolonged, researchers added, by controlling pollution. Reducing exposure to air pollution by 67 percent could add seven months to average life expectancy, according to the report’s forecast.

            “Since exposure to air pollution shortens life expectancy, reducing air pollution could help people live longer. While it is hard to predict exactly how various levels of pollution reduction would translate into longer lifespans, researchers have estimated the gains that might be expected under hypothetical scenarios,” researchers said in the State of Global Air 2019 report.

            Bangladesh, China, India and Pakistan could experience the greatest gains, among the world’s 11 most populous countries, in life expectancy by meeting or exceeding air quality guidelines established by the World Health Organization, or WHO.

            The country formerly known as East Pakistan, for example, could experience up to 1.3 years of life expectancy gain by reducing air pollution according to WHO standards.

            India, China and Nigeria could each experience one-year gains in life expectancy, also by meeting WHO air quality guidelines.

            Brazil, Japan, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia and the United States would experience minimal gains in life expectancy by meeting WHO’s air quality guidelines.

            Death by air pollution is almost as frequent as smoking and more common than death by unsafe drinking water and lung cancer, the report continued. The risk of dying by air pollution, however, is greater in what the State of Global Air 2019 identifies as “least-developed countries.”

            “In 2017, air pollution ranked fifth among all mortality risk factors globally, accounting for nearly 5 million early deaths and 147 million years of healthy life lost,” researchers authoring the State of Global Air 2019 report said. “This loss of life expectancy is not borne equally across all regions and countries. The least-developed countries, where air pollution exposures are often the highest, face the largest declines in life expectancy related to air pollution.”

            Burning of solid fuels such as charcoal, coal, dung, wood and other biomass is attributed to unsafe air pollution levels, researchers added.

Countries where coal is commonly burned experience higher levels of air pollution, according to researchers.

Countries where coal is commonly burned experience higher levels of air pollution, according to researchers.

            “Household burning of solid fuels – coal, wood, charcoal, dung, and other forms of biomass – remains an important source of exposure to particulate matter, especially in low- and middle-income countries in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Ozone concentrations are creeping upward globally, with particularly pronounced growth in rapidly developing countries like China,” the State of Global Air 2019’s researchers stated.

            The published report, interestingly enough, did acknowledge various public health successes, such as “substantial reductions in childhood mortality” and “significant improvements in life expectancy overall,” but more still needs to be done to reduce the effects of air pollution.

            “Even with improvements in air quality, the burden of disease attributable to air pollution continues to rise as populations grow, age, and become more susceptible to the noncommunicable diseases most closely related to air pollution,” researchers with the State of Global Air 2019 report said. “Facing these trends effectively requires not only making substantial gains in air quality but also reducing disparities in health in the least-developed countries that often carry the largest burdens.”

Other countries where air pollution was at its unhealthiest levels included Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Oman, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

            Bloomberg Philanthropies and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation funded the State of Global Air 2019. Health Effects Institute, Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation and the University of British Columbia contributed to the report.