AIR pollution is the greatest threat to human health and cuts the average lifespan by almost two years globally, according to new research. Major Asian cities are among the worst affected, taking as much as a decade off citizens lives.
The analysis from University of Chicago looks at particulate matter air pollution, produced through burning fossil fuels by vehicles and industry. The burning produces microscopic particles capable of penetrating deep into the lungs and bypassing the body’s natural defences. When it enters the bloodstream it can cause lung disease, cancer, strokes, and heart attacks, as well as mental health issues in children.
The new index shows the risks of air pollution from a more human perspective. Rather than measure it by air quality alone, the new Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) converts air pollution into perhaps the most important metric that exists: its impact on life expectancy.
Researchers found some parts of the world are much worse than others, with many of the most dangerous levels occurring in Asia-Pacific.
While the global average cut in lifespan is 1.8 years, this rises to 4.3 years in India and 2.9 years in China.
Taking a more localised review of conditions, researchers found residents of Beijing will live about six years fewer because of high pollution. In Delhi, the world’s most polluted city, residents can expect to live a whole decade less than if particulate concentrations were brought down to the World Health Organisation (WHO) guideline.
While these are troubling statistics for Asia, across the world the situation is getting steadily worse, the study found. The average loss in life expectancy in 1998 was just one year; this has risen to 1.8 in 2016.
This life expectancy loss makes particulate pollution more devastating than communicable diseases like tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, behavioural killers like cigarette smoking, and even war.
The predominant cause of such worrying figures is the burning of fossil fuels driven by industrialisation and economic development in developing countries.
Energy is more in demand than ever, especially in places like China which has gone through record-breaking economic growth over recent decades. Coal-generated electricity increased more than five-fold from 1995 to 2015 in China, the study found; in India, it increased more than three-fold.
North America and parts of Europe, however, have seen their particulate pollution decrease. Through a combination of offshoring polluting industries abroad and well-implemented air pollution policies, citizens in this part of the world now enjoy relatively clean air.
But China is also realising the damaging impact their development has had and are taking measures to curb the worst of its pollutants, which appears to be working.
The AQLI’s data shows that, three years into a “War on Pollution,” China has achieved large reductions in air pollution. If these improvements are sustained, the average resident there would see their life expectancy increase by 0.5 years.
Earlier this month, the WHO declared over 90 percent of the world’s children under 15 years of age breathe air that is so polluted it’s damaging their intelligence and leading to an estimated 600,000 deaths in 2016.