A study revealed on Tuesday that air pollution poses a greater health risk to the average individual on planet Earth compared to smoking or alcohol. This threat is escalating, particularly in Asia, which remains the global epicentre of this issue.
The average Indian resident is set to lose five years of life expectancy if the World Health Organization’s guidelines are not followed, according to the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC), which released the annual Air Quality Life Index (AQLI), on Tuesday. Air pollution (PM2.5) remains the greatest external risk to human health, reducing the average person’s life expectancy by 2.3 years—or a combined 17.8 billion life-years lost worldwide.
This data makes clear that particulate pollution remains the world’s greatest external risk to human health, with the impact on life expectancy comparable to that of smoking, more than 3 times that of alcohol use and unsafe water, and more than 5 times that of transport injuries like car crashes. Yet, the pollution challenge worldwide is vastly unequal. “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,” says Michael Greenstone, the Milton Friedman Distinguished Service Professor in Economics and creator of the AQLI along with colleagues at the EPIC.
The life expectancy refers to the number of years an average person lives. Over the years, due to modern technology, better healthcare and facilities, the world life expectancy has increased significantly in the past few decades as per data released by WHO. The average person’s life expectancy from 43.5 in 1950 has increased to 72.6 years in 2023.
The problem of air pollution has remained constant in the majority of South-Asian countries. It has been the one major reason behind deaths in these nations.
“Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan—where 22.9 percent of the global population lives—are the top four most polluted countries in the world. South Asia accounts for more than half, 52.8 percent, of the total life years lost globally due to high pollution. The average South Asian would live 5.1 years longer if these four countries reduced pollution to meet the WHO guidelines”, the report highlights.
As per the data in the report, the average resident of Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan is exposed to particulate pollution levels that are 51.3 percent higher than at the turn of the century.
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Although the challenge of reducing air pollution across the world may seem daunting, China has had remarkable success, reducing pollution by 42.3 percent since 2013, the year before the country began a “war against pollution”. Due to these improvements, the average Chinese citizen can expect to live 2.2 years longer, provided the reductions are sustained. However, the pollution in China is still six times higher than the WHO guideline, taking 2.5 years off life expectancy.
The report also highlights the pollution level and its impact on life expectancy in the major cities of India. Air pollution shortens the lives of the residents of Delhi by around 11.9 years. It also states how the dispersion of PM 2.5 is no longer just limited to the Northern Plains. This particulate matter has now spread all across the country, making the air quality range between very poor to hazardous.
In the states of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, home to 204.2 million people, pollution has risen by 76.8 and 78.5 percent, respectively, since 2000. Here, the average person is now losing an additional 1.8 to 2.3 years of life expectancy, relative to what they would have lost if 2000 PM2.5 levels had remained unchanged, the report adds.
Bangladesh has been reported to be the world’s most polluted country. The presence of PM2.5 in the air has resulted in reducing the life of an average person in Bangladesh by 6.8 years, in comparison to what the life expectancy would have been if the country had met WHO set guidelines.
Meanwhile, Nepal is the world’s third most polluted country as per the AQIL report. The PM2.5 level in air has reduced the average lifespan of a person in Nepal by 4.6 years.
The AQIL report sheds light on the pollution levels in both the United States and Europe. In the United States, average pollution was 7.8 µg/m3 in 2021, slightly above the WHO guideline of 5 µg/m3. And if the level remains the same, people could roughly add 3.6 months to their average life expectancy.
Whereas in Europe,the average European in 2021 was exposed to a particulate pollution concentration of 12.4 µg/m3 , meeting the European Union’s air pollution standard of 25 µg/m3 but falling short of the revised WHO guideline. If Europe manages to meet the guidelines set by WHO, the lifespan of Europeans would improve by 8.4 months.
However, the pollution level is not uniform throughout the US and Europe. “For example, in recent years, rising wildfires in the Western United States have caused air pollution levels to rise in the region. Residents of California’s Central Valley are now consistently exposed to average particulate pollution levels above both the WHO guideline and the nation’s own air quality standard,” the report states.
The same goes for Europe. There is a significant difference in the current pollution levels and consequent health burdens between eastern and western portions of the continent. The eastern portion of Europe could gain 6.3 more months of life expectancy than the western portion, if both regions were to meet the WHO guidelines. Virtually all of the populations of Poland, Belarus, Slovakia, Hungary, Lithuania, Armenia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina do not meet the WHO’s guidelines, says the AQIL report.
Various nations have started working on programmes to combat the issue of air pollution.
India launched the National Clean Air Programme in 2019 to wage a ‘war on pollution’. The goal was set to reduce pollution levels by 20-30 per cent by the year 2024. “In 2022, the Government of India revamped its NCAP goal, aiming to achieve a 40 percent reduction in particulate pollution levels by 2026 in 131 non-attainment cities.
Achieving and sustaining such a reduction for the 131 non-attainment cities would increase India’s national average life expectancy by 7.9 months, and by 4.4 years for residents of Delhi–the most polluted non-attainment city, underscoring the massive potential benefits, adds the report.
The governments of other South-Asian countries like Nepal, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have started taking note of the pollution levels of their respective nations, and have drawn up various schemes to improve the air quality in order to increase life expectancy.
But there’s a disparity between countries in South Asia, Africa, and Latin America in comparison to the United Nations and other major western nations. Comparatively, the latter nations have access to cleaner air, and have better AQI than the former. This is mainly because the tools and technologies are at their disposal. Also, the various policies and schemes laid down by their respective governments.
The only solution to the rampant increase in air pollution and its deadly impact on the average life expectancy, is to build much stronger laws, policies and equip under-developed and developing nations with proper tools. Nations coming together to address the issue is the only feasible solution at the present time.