Breathing is more dangerous than smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol.
That’s according to the latest report from the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, which says that air pollution now takes more than two years off the global average life expectancy – more than cigarettes, alcohol, or conflict and terrorism.
The annual report, known as the Air Quality Life Index, or AQLI, was released Tuesday.
It found that particulate air pollution – a mixture of contaminants such as smoke, fumes, dust and pollen – has remained high, even as the coronavirus pandemic slowed the global economy and brought blue skies to some of the world’s most polluted areas.
At the same time, evidence of the health risks associated with pollution has grown, the index says, adding that world leaders aren’t treating the problem with the urgency it deserves.
“It would be a global emergency if Martians came to Earth and sprayed a substance that caused the average person on the planet to lose more than 2 years of life expectancy,” Michael Greenstone, director of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute, said in a news release.
“This is similar to the situation that prevails in many parts of the world,” he said. “Except we are spraying the substance, not some invaders from outer space.”
Air pollution can lead to strokes, heart disease, lung cancer and other respiratory diseases, according to the World Health Organization. It is on track to reduce the global average life expectancy by 2.2 years, the report says.
In comparison, smoking cigarettes cuts life expectancy by about 1.9 years, while drinking alcohol reduces it by eight months. Unsafe water and sanitation lead to a seven-month reduction in life expectancy, according to AQLI, with conflict and terrorism shaving off just nine days.
Unlike cigarettes or alcohol, the report’s researchers say, air pollution is “nearly impossible to avoid.”
Because of the growing health risks, last year the WHO for the first time since 2005 updated its guidance on the acceptable level of air pollution people should breathe.
Under the revised benchmark, roughly 97% of the world’s population lives in places where air pollution exceeds the recommended level, according to the AQLI analysis.
The global population-weighted average for particulate matter in the air declined only slightly between 2019 and 2020, from 27.7 µg/m3 to 27.5 µg/m3, the report found, even as pandemic restrictions reduced travel and slowed down the global economy.
“The fact that global pollution remained flat, or even increased, even as economies stalled across the world, underscores that pollution is a stubborn problem that can only be solved by strong policies backed by an even stronger willingness for change,” the report says.
South Asia is the world’s most polluted region, according to the report – and the place where breathing the air is deadliest. Bangladesh is the most polluted country, while roughly 44% of increased pollution in the world since 2013 has come from India.
Pollution continued to rise in South Asia in 2020. If current levels persist, residents are projected to lose about five years of life on average. New Delhi, India’s capital, is the “most polluted megacity in the world,” the report found, with average annual pollution levels reaching more than 21 times the WHO guideline.
In November, Delhi officials shut schools, closed government offices and paused construction projects as a thick haze enveloped northern India and harmful particles measured 20 times the WHO’s limit. Residents had to wear masks at home, and a lawyer representing the municipal government told a court that breathing the city’s air for a day was equivalent to smoking 20 cigarettes.
The uptick in pollution in South Asia comes from greater fossil fuel use as the region has industrialized and developed and its population grows. Crop burning also contributes to the problem. India launched a national program to improve air quality in 2019, with the aim of reducing pollution levels by 20% to 30% from 2017 levels by 2024.
Pollution also continued to rise in parts of Southeast Asia, and almost all of Central and West Africa – more than 97% – is considered to have unsafe levels of pollution, under the WHO’s standards. That’s compared with 92.8% of the United States and 95.5% of Europe having air quality that is worse than recommended, though only slightly so.
The United States and Europe have “largely been successfully enforcing strong pollution rules,” the report says, but renewed government focus on the issue is needed.
Permanently reducing air pollution to meet the WHO guideline would add 2.2 years to global average life expectancy, raising it from about 72 to 74.2 years. The world’s population would gain 17 billion years of life in total, the report says.
The researchers point to China as an example of a country that has successfully cleaned up its air. After public criticism in 2013, when China recorded some of its highest pollution levels, the government declared a “war against pollution,” prohibiting new coal-fired power plants in certain regions, requiring existing plants to reduce emissions and mandating that large cities restrict the number of cars on the road.
Taken together, these and other measures reduced particulate pollution in China by nearly 40% since 2013 and added about two years to average life expectancy there.
“It took several decades and recessions for the United States and Europe to achieve the same pollution reductions that China was able to accomplish in 7 years, even as it continued to grow its economy,” the report says. But it points out that pollution in China still greatly exceeds the WHO’s recommended level.
The AQLI report measures pollution through 2020, because of a lag in the satellite data it uses. China earlier this year moved to ramp up coal production amid power shortages and concerns about energy security, made worse by turbulence in international energy markets because of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Greenstone told The Washington Post that he expects “a modest increase” in pollution in the coming years as more countries double down on coal and other fossil fuels in response to the global energy crisis.
“Among the fossil fuels, coal is the champion in terms of producing particulate air pollution that causes people to lead shorter and sicker lives today, and increasing the rate of climate change,” he said.
Air pollution is “deeply intertwined” with climate change, the report says, so tackling it can kill two birds with one stone.
“Policy can simultaneously reduce dependence on fossil fuels that will allow people to live longer and healthier lives and reduce the costs of climate change,” the researchers wrote.
But that requires greater funding and political will, they said. Less than $45 million is spent by all philanthropic organizations on air pollution each year globally, which represents 0.1% of total yearly grantmaking, Christa Hasenkopf, AQLI’s director, wrote in the report’s introduction.
“A relatively small increase in support can have an outsized impact, filling basic air quality management gaps such as access to continuous, reliable air quality monitoring data,” she wrote.
For developing countries where the cost of implementing sweeping regulations could be daunting, Greenstone advocates market-based approaches such as a pollution tax.
“These countries are not very wealthy, and so the need for economic growth is urgent,” he said. “Finding these lighter-touch ways to better facilitate rapid economic growth with clean air that people can breathe – I think that’s the best path forward.”