Air Clean Up

  • How Does Pollution Affect the Average Life Expectancy?

How Does Pollution Affect the Average Life Expectancy?

Sep 19 2018 Read 1423 Times

We all know that air pollution is bad for us - but just how bad is it exactly? According to a new report from Texas in the United States, poor quality air takes an average of one year off our lifespan. In much of the developed world, that figure is unsurprisingly smaller, but in many places with high pollution levels and low healthcare coverage, as much as two years could be lost to air pollution.

The research highlights the immediacy of the problem and puts it into context alongside other detrimental health factors such as cancer, diet, tobacco and water sanitation. Viewed in this light, air pollution is a problem that none of us can afford to ignore if we are serious about living the longest and fullest lives we can.

First of its kind

Most studies focusing on how air pollution affects mortality will focus on death rates and incidences of disease. The latest study, published in Environmental Science and Technology Letters last month, is unique in its particulate matter-specific approach. By assessing data from the 2016 Global Burden of Disease report, the study was able to estimate exactly how much PM may take off a person’s life in 185 countries around the globe.

On average, the study found that exposure to high levels of PM shaved a year off every person’s life. In highly polluted countries in Asia and Africa, such as China, India and Nigeria, that figure rose to between 1.6 and 1.9 years, having a significant impact on the national longevity. However, even in places where pollution levels are low (such as Australia and the USA), PM was responsible for curtailing life by at least a few months.

Bigger risk than lung cancer

The team also assessed how air pollution affected life expectancy in comparison to other risk factors, such as disease, diet and smoking habits. The results showed that improving air quality and reducing transport-related pollution could have a more beneficial impact on average life expectancy than some other factors, such as breast or lung cancer or water sanitation.

The role of air pollution was most prominent in low-income countries, while their high-income equivalents should be more preoccupied by dietary risks, tobacco consumption and the contraction of various forms of cancer. This insight is invaluable in informing policy makers where to direct funds from their next budget in order to best boost national health.

Everyone can benefit

Finally, the authors also measured how each country’s average life expectancy would benefit if PM concentrations were limited to the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendation of 10 micrograms per cubic metre. Of course, some places already enjoy air of that quality, so the benefits for them were negligible, but on average the world population would gain 0.6 years of their life back.

It should be mentioned that all air pollution-related deaths cannot be eliminated by meeting WHO recommendations, since even low pollution levels carry their own risks. However, in places like India for example, bringing PM concentrations to below 10mg/m3 would give a 60-year person a 20% increased likelihood of reaching 85 years of age. Indeed, regardless of their geographical location or social status, all of us would benefit from inhaling less PM in the future.

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