In the News

September 7, 2021

Air Pollution Cutting More Years From People’s Lives Than Smoking, War or HIV/AIDS

AQLI Director Ken Lee is featured on WTTW's Chicago Tonight.

Air pollution is slashing years from billions of people’s lives around the world and is a greater threat to life expectancy than smoking, HIV/AIDS or war, a report published Wednesday shows.

In countries where air pollution levels are below standards set by the World Health Organization (WHO), people are, on average, losing 2.2 years of their lives.

India has the highest levels of air pollution globally and its residents stand to lose more years than those of any other country, with an average of 5.9 years shaved off their lives, according to the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI), published in an annual report by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC).

In northern India, 480 million people are breathing pollution levels more than 10 times higher than those anywhere else on the planet. In some parts of this region, including the cities of Delhi and Kolkata, residents could lose up to nine years of their lives, on average, if the pollution levels documented in 2019 persist.

The index calculates years lost based on what the life expectancy would be if a country met clean air guidelines set by WHO.

The top five countries with the highest average number of years lost were all in Asia. After India came Bangladesh, where residents lose an average of 5.4 years of life expectancy, followed by Nepal (5 years), Pakistan (3.9 years) and Singapore (3.8 years).

The report’s authors said that air pollution was primarily driven by the use and production of fossil fuels creating “a global problem that requires strong policies at every front.”

The study also points to how the world has enjoyed cleaner skies and air as the pandemic forced a pause on air travel, and reduced road traffic and manufacturing. But at the same time, some parts of the world experienced high levels of air pollution from wildfires, exacerbated by hotter and drier weather conditions. In the US, smog from relentless wildfires in some western states traveled across the country, impacting air quality as far away as New York City.

“These remarkable events illustrate that air pollution is not only a global challenge, but is also intertwined with climate change. Both challenges are primarily caused by the same culprit: fossil fuel emissions from power plants, vehicles and other industrial sources,” the report said. It called on the world’s governments to urgently implement policies to reduce its dependence on fuels like coal, oil and gas.

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