This report may not be the breath of fresh air climate experts hoped.

Air pollution reduces the average life span globally by 2.3 years, making it the “greatest external threat to human life expectancy,” according to the annual Air Quality Life Index report published Tuesday.

Researchers from the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago found that the effects of merely inhaling unclean air were comparable to smoking, but caused over three times the damage of alcohol use or unsafe water and over 5 times that of car crash injuries.

In 2021, 20 of the 30 most polluted US counties were located in California, likely due to the state’s wildfires where some residents are regularly exposed to high levels of fine particulate matter, which measure at or below 2.5 microns, which has been linked to an array of health consequences that affect the brain and lungs.

In the same year, not one country met the World Health Organization’s air quality standard of 5 micrograms of pollutants per cubic meter of air (μg/m³).

In the US, the standard is 12 μg/m³, although the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a decrease in the national standard to 9 to 10 μg/m³.

In 2021, no country met the World Health Organization’s air quality standards.
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Should it be met, the Energy Policy Institute estimated that a combined 3.2 million years could be gained as a result.

However, much of the air pollution that impacts life span originates in Africa and Asia, which reportedly contributes to more than 92% of the global life expectancy loss.

Yet, those regions — where air pollution is now as great of a threat to public health as HIV/AIDS and malaria — lack the appropriate infrastructure to address air quality.

“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,” Michael Greenstone, Air Quality Life Index creator and Milton Friedman Distinguished Service Professor in Economics, said in a statement.

Bangladesh, for example, which has the most air pollution, averages a loss of 6.8 years of life. Comparatively, US residents only lost 3.6 months on average.

Graphic of people in masks in pollution
Air pollution poses a grave health threat, according to researchers.
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Researchers see this as an opportunity for further funding to “collaboratively build the infrastructure that is missing today,” according to Christa Hasenkopf, director of the Energy Policy Institute air quality programs and AQLI.

“Timely, reliable, open-air quality data, in particular, can be the backbone of civil society and government clean air efforts — providing the information that people and governments lack and that allows for more informed policy decisions,” Hasenkopf said in a statement.

But the seemingly impossible feat of tackling air pollution isn’t all that unlikely. China, for one, has significantly reduced its air pollution over the past decade following its “war against pollution.”

As of 2021, the country had cut its air pollution by just over 42% and its citizens gained an average of 2.2 years in their lives, despite the fine particulate matter levels being six times higher than advised.

Smog over city
If countries met air quality standards, citizens’ lives could be extended.
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Last year, the World Health Organization estimated that 99% of the world was breathing potentially toxic air.

“After surviving a pandemic, it is unacceptable to still have 7 million preventable deaths and countless preventable lost years of good health due to air pollution,” Dr. María Neira, the director of the WHO’s Department of Public Health and Environment, previously said.

“Yet too many investments are still being sunk into a polluted environment rather than in clean, healthy air.”

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