Looking at Air Pollution from its Shortening of Life Expectancy

Looking at Air Pollution from its Shortening of Life Expectancy

Environmentalists at the University of Chicago have done a worldwide study of the effects of air pollution on lowering life expectancy in all nations, and in key regions within nations.  They have put together particulate air pollution data PM2.5 over the earth, and noted that life expectancy is lowered by a year for every 10 µg/m^3 of PM2.5 in excess over the WHO standard of 10 µg/m^3.  We summarize some key findings of their report, for Los Angeles, the United States, and leading polluting countries and regions.

The report is “Introducing the Air Quality Life Index” (AQLI) from EPIC, the Energy Policy Institute fo the University of Chicago.  The authors are Michael Greenstone and Qing (Claire) Fan.

On a worldwide average, life expectancy is lowered by 1.8 years from particulate pollution PM2.5 of size less than 2.5 microns, which is small enough to go through the lungs and get into the blood stream.  For the largest countries, China loses 2.9 years on average, and India 4.3 years.  For major polluting cities, Delhi loses 10 years, and Beijing loses 6 years.  

For the US, the average is now only a 0.1 year loss.  But this is a result of the 1970 Clean Air Act, which has reduced America’s PM2.5 by 60%, allowing Americans to live 1.5 years longer.  America still has four major polluted cities, containing 49 million people.  In New York, people are living 2 years longer, and also in Chicago.  In Washington D.C., people are living 3 years longer.  In Los Angeles, pollution has been reduced 40%, and people are living one year longer. 

In the US, one-third live in areas that are not meeting the WHO guidelines.  Meeting them would extend lifetimes by one year in most polluted counties.

In China, coal generated electricity has increased 5 fold from 1995 to 2015.  In India it has increased 3 fold.  If emissions were reduced to WHO guidelines, 288 million people in Northern India would live 7 years longer, which is 23% of India.  347 million in Asia would live 5-7 years longer.  That includes 35% of Nepal, 16% of Bangladesh, 13% of China, 10% of Pakistan, and 9% of India.

A list of countries where reducing particulates to WHO standards would increase life expectancy by more than 2 years follows, along with their average PM2.5 reading in µg/m^3, the standard being 10 µg/m^3.

Country.                PM2.5.   Life Span Increase

Bangladesh.               53.     4.2 years.

China.                         39.     2.9 years. 

India.                          54.     4.3 years.

Nepal.                         55.     4.4 years

Pakistan.                    37.     2.7 years

Republic of Congo.  34.     2.3 years

Thailand.                    31.     2.1 years

Worldwide, the 1.8 years lost if applied to 7 billion people would result in 12.8 billion years of longer lives, restoring the life spans to 74 years.  Compared to this loss, smoking reduces lives on average 1.6 years, alcohol and drugs 11 months, bad water and sanitation 7 months, HIV/AIDS 4 months, and conflict and terrorism 22 days.

Worldwide, 75% of the global population or 5.5 billion people live with PM2.5 greater than the WHO standard.

While just the number and years of shortened life spans are given, there is much other suffering attached to the conditions that lower the lifespan, and the continual asthma, sickness, irritation, and quality of life lost to air pollution, as we have summarized in other articles under Air Quality.  There are also economic losses due to hospitalization, illness, days off work, days without power, school closures, canceled exercise, missed classes, costs of medications, etc.

Another sobering thought, cleaning up air pollution will decrease greenhouse gases, but also allow more sunlight in for warming.  But the hundred year atmospheric timespan of CO2 is by far the worst warming effect.

About Dennis SILVERMAN

I am a retired Professor of Physics and Astronomy at U C Irvine. For a decade I have been active in learning about energy and the environment, and in lecturing and attending classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at UC Irvine.
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