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Air Pollution and Life Expectancy

air pollution

A study conducted by a team of public health researchers and leading environmental engineers have determined that air pollution shortens the lives of humans by more than a year. This is the first study that looked at data from air pollution and lifespan in order to examine global variations on how they might affect overall life expectancy.

Outdoor air pollution was looked at from particulate matter (PM) smaller than 2.5 microns. Particles this fine can enter deep into the lungs and breathing these particles is associated with an increase risk of a variety of serious diseases and conditions. 2.5 microns is pollution that comes from car, trucks, fires, wind storms, power plants and industrial and agriculture emissions.

Led by researchers at the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin, data from the Global Burden of Disease Study was used to measure PM2.5 air pollution exposure and its affects in 185 countries. The team then quantified the national impact on lifespan for each individual country as well on a global scale. Their findings were published in the August 22nd issue of Environmental Science & Technology Letters.

Globally, outdoor air pollution reduces average life expectancy at birth by one year. The effect is more pronounced in some countries such as Egypt were life span is reduced by 1.9 years, in India by 1.5 years and in Russia it is about nine months. In heavily populated areas of Asia and Africa it is much worse with life expectancy between one year and two months to one year and eleven months. In the United States it is less, currently reducing average life expectancy of an American born today by just over four months.

The study took into account measurements of ambient or outdoor air pollution. Data was gathered from previous studies using ground based pollution meters and satellites to calculate levels of ambient particular matter (PM2.5). The lead researcher, Dr. Joshua Apte, called this kind of particular matter “the single more important environmental pollutant for ill health and death.” Right now 95% of the world’s population are exposed to levels of PM2.5 which exceed the World Health Organization’s recommended level.

From previous studies, data indicated that PM2.5 was the fifth highest mortality risk factor in 2015. Exposure to PM2.5 levels caused 4.2 millions deaths that year and 103.1 million life years lost after adjusting for disabilities. This is the equaivalent of 7.6% of all deaths world wide in 2015. The World Health Organization estimates that one in nine deaths are related to indoor and outdoor air pollution.

The study also discovered that death rates from air pollution had increase calculating 3.5 million people died worldwide from breathing PM2.5 in 1990 which is 700,000 fewer deaths compared to those killed in 2015. The researchers noted that the increase was most likely due to aging populations, changes in non communicable disease rates and the increase of air pollution in middle and low income countries.

It is well known that fine particle air pollution is a major worldwide killer. The study was able to systematically identify how air pollution substantially shortens lifespans throughout the world. Compared to other significant phenomena which affect human survival rates, Dr. Apte points out this is a significant large number even noting that it is considerably larger than the survival benefits that might be realized with cures found for both breast and lung cancer combined. In India and China the improvement of air quality would be especially large for the elderly. For a good portion of Asia reduced air pollution would affect 60 year old people by a 15 to 20 percent higher chance of living to 85 or older.

Dr. Apte reports that sources of PM2.5 pollution and greenhouse gas emissions are very often tightly linked. This means that moving to cleaner energy sources can deliver quick dividends for the health of the public. More efficient car and cleaner electricity directly affect both climate and health. He believes cleaner and more efficient energy use is one of the best added benefits of tackling climate change which will lead to healthier and longer lives.

To view the original scientific study click here: Ambient PM2.5 Reduces Global and Regional Life Expectancy.