A new study suggests that average worldwide life expectancy has dropped one year and eight months due to the effects of air pollution, with Canadians passing away up to three months sooner than they would have in the absence of air pollution.

The study, by the Health Effects Institute (HEI) and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s Global Burden of Disease Project, with assistance from the University of British Columbia, concluded that the global impact of air pollution has begun to rival the effects of smoking.

“A child’s health is critical to the future of every society, and this newest evidence suggests a much shorter life for anyone born into highly polluted air,” said Dan Greenbaum, President of HEI, in a media statement. “In much of the world, just breathing in an average city is the health equivalent to being a heavy smoker,” he added.

The study tracked three main pollutants: fine particles (PM2.5), ozone, and household air pollution. Fine particle air pollution comes from vehicle emissions, coal-burning power plants, industrial emissions, and many other human and natural sources. Around the world, ambient levels of PM2.5 continue to exceed the Air Quality Guideline established by the WHO. The guideline for annual average PM2.5 concentration is set at 10 µg/m3 based on evidence of the health effects of long-term exposure. Many of the world’s more developed countries monitor PM2.5 concentrations through extensive networks of monitoring stations concentrated around urban areas.

Air pollution PM2.5 concentrations in 2017
Annual average PM2.5 concentrations in 2017 relative to the WHO Air Quality Guideline
Photo Credit: HEI and Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s Global Burden of Disease Project.

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In 2017, 3.6 billion people (47% of the global population) were exposed to household air pollution from the use of solid fuels for cooking. These exposures were most common in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and East Asia.

Exposure to ground-level ozone increases a person’s likelihood of dying from respiratory disease, specifically chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

The study’s authors called air pollution a “loss that ranks just below that related to smoking but above that related to unsafe drinking water and lung cancer.” They added that these effects on life expectancy are not borne equally across all regions and countries, with places such as South Asia having reduced life expectancy by an estimated average of one year and seven months, and one year and three months for North Africa and the Middle East. Lost life rises to over two years and six months for children born in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan, where air pollution is at its worst.

“The Global Burden of Disease leads a growing worldwide consensus – among the WHO, World Bank, International Energy Agency and others – that air pollution poses a major global public health challenge,” said Robert O’Keefe, Vice President of HEI, in a statement. “In the developing world, half the world’s population faces a double burden of indoor and outdoor pollution,” he added.

On a more optimistic front, the study tracks China’s efforts to reduce air pollution, notably the first Action Plan for Air Pollution Prevention and Control, issued by the State Council of China in 2013. The plan set key air quality targets and included specific actions to reduce reliance on coal, cut industrial emissions, control the number of vehicles in some cities, and increase lower-emission energy sources. When this plan expired in 2017, China issued a new three-year plan (2018 to 2020), which targets more cities. Since 2013, the data suggests that PM2.5 concentrations have seen a decline of about one-third, with a 54% reduction in sulfur dioxide concentrations and a 28% drop in carbon monoxide.

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