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Air pollution cuts lifespans more than alcohol and unsafe water, says report

cigarette smoke

HQ Team

October 12, 2023: A new report from the University of Chicago’s Air Quality Life Index has refocused our attention on the devastating impact of air pollution on global life expectancies. The study finds that breathing polluted air, particularly fine particulates, poses a greater threat to life expectancy than alcohol use or access to unsafe water.

According to the report, if global air quality met the standards set by the World Health Organization (WHO), it could save a staggering 17.8 billion life years collectively.

Pollution problem

The report says tiny particulates found in polluted air are wreaking havoc on public health worldwide.

The Air Quality Life Index presents an air quality report for various countries and regions. While the United States has seen improvements in air quality since the Clean Air Act of the 1970s, a significant portion of its population still breathes polluted air. In fact, the report reveals that 96% of the U.S. population lives in areas with unsafe levels of pollution.

“The latest scientific evidence on the impact of pollution at even the low levels that exist in much of the United States reveals that 96% of the population [is] living in areas with unsafe levels of pollution,” the report states

Southeast Asia emerges as one of the world’s worst regions for air pollution, with nearly all of its 673.7 million residents exposed to air quality that exceeds WHO pollution limits. Nigeria also faces a dire situation, with air pollution shortening lives to an extent comparable to the impact of malaria and unsafe water. The average lifespan of a Nigerian is cut short by approximately 1.8 years due to air pollution, relative to what it would be if WHO air quality guidelines were met.

Sources of particle pollution

Particle pollutants are tiny, harmful particles either solid or liquid droplets originating from a wide range of human activities. Construction sites, unpaved roads, smokestacks, fires, traffic exhaust, fuel combustion, and waste burning are all contributors. Even everyday tasks such as cooking and vacuuming can release harmful particles into the air, which can subsequently infiltrate indoor spaces. Climate change is adding to the problem with wildfires spreading in the US, across Europe and even the Arctic region.

“Because of their small size, fine particles outdoors can penetrate into homes and buildings. Therefore, high outdoor particle pollution levels can elevate indoor particle pollution concentrations,” the EPA reports

Efforts to tackle the crisis

The Air Quality Life Index emphasizes the importance of supporting legislation like the Clean Air Act, which extended the average U.S. life expectancy by an estimated 1.4 years. Furthermore, it encourages countries to adopt measures that align with WHO standards, which will lead to longer, healthier lives for their populations.

Innovations like the development of large outdoor air purifiers are promising solutions for improving air quality in urban areas. Additionally, using air purifiers in homes can significantly enhance indoor air quality. Regularly cleaning and maintaining filters on air conditioners and appliances is equally vital to reducing indoor particle

This report underscores the devastating impact of air pollution on global life expectancies. Breathing polluted air is taking a more significant toll on our lives than many other well-recognized health risks. Urgent action is needed to address this crisis, from implementing and strengthening air quality regulations to adopting innovative solutions for cleaner air. The statistics and evidence presented in this report should serve as a powerful wake-up call for governments, organizations, and individuals to prioritize the fight against air pollution for the well-being of current and future generations.

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