July 5, 2022

Countdown for Clean Air

Our latest report from the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) reveals the immense toll air pollution can have on life expectancy. This summer we’re breaking down the data into 10 easy-to-digest charts that uncover the most compelling findings. These findings show the severity of the problem, but also the benefits strong policies could bring to improve our health and lengthen our lives. Follow us each week as we count down to our #1 chart, coming the week of International Clean Air Day on September 7th

#5 – Wildfire-Ravaged California is Home to 29 of the Top 30 Most Polluted Counties

Particulate Pollution (PM2.5) Concentrations in the United States, 2020

California leads the nations as the most polluted state thanks mostly to catastrophic wildfires. Out of the top 30 most polluted U.S. counties, 29 of them were in California in 2020. Indeed, some counties are now more polluted than they were in 1970, before policy existed to reduce pollution. The pollution levels, if sustained, are set to shave nearly a year off the life expectancy of residents on average in each of those 29 counties. The most polluted county was Mariposa, where pollution shot up to double the amount experienced in 2018 when it hit a record high level. If this high pollution continues, Mariposa residents could see their lives cut short by 1.7 years on average.

#6 – Countries Lacking National Air Pollution Standards are Shortening the Lives of Their People

Countries with the Largest Health Burden Due to Air Pollution and No National Air Quality Standards Embedded in Legislative Instruments

Enforceable national air quality standards are essential for reducing pollution. Yet, some of the most polluted countries in the world lack them, such as the fifth most polluted, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and seventh most polluted, Myanmar. If the DRC and Myanmar achieved air quality standards that met the stringency of the World Health Organization’s guideline, their residents would gain 2.9 and 2.7 years in life expectancy, respectively. Along with the DRC and Myanmar, Ethiopia, Iran and Uganda round out the top five countries with no legally-embedded national standards that would see the most benefits from cleaner air. Unless actions are taken to reduce fossil fuels and install strong, enforceable air standards, pollution will only become a greater problem in these countries.

#7 – The Most Polluted Region on Earth is Seeing Air Quality Worsen at an Alarming Rate, Increasing Health Disparities

Average PM2.5 Concentrations in India, 1998 to 2020

Across India, pollution has been on the rise over the last 22 years, with no region escaping that increase. But the residents of northern India have experienced the worst pollution on earth, cutting 7.6 years off their lives—far more than the 3.3 years of life expectancy all other Indians would lose. That disparity has only grown over time. In 1998, northern residents saw their lives cuts short by 3 more years than everyone else. By 2020, a 42 percent increase in the pollution gap had caused the lives of those in the north to be cut short by 4.3 more years compared other Indians.

#8 – Eastern Europeans are Living Shorter Lives Than Their Western Neighbors Due To Air Pollution

Comparison of Life Expectancy Lost Due to Particulate Pollution Not Meeting the WHO Guideline

Europeans today are breathing starkly different air, with the west generally less polluted than the east. Residents of eastern Europe are losing 10.7 months of life expectancy on average due to air pollution compared to 3.8 months lost in the west. The differences are even more poignant when comparing neighbors. Germans are losing just months off their lives while Poles are losing a full year. Residents of Bosnia and Herzegovina are losing almost 2 years off their lives due to air that is more comparable to countries in Southeast Asia than to nearby Austria where there is half as much pollution.

#9 – Air Pollution is as Much of a Threat as Communicable Diseases in West Africa

Life Expectancy Impacts of Particulate Pollution and Other Health Threats in the Four Most Populous Countries in West Africa

The health focus in Sub-Saharan Africa has centered on infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS and malaria, which receives about 10 percent of health expenditures in the region. But the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) shows that particulate pollution—often ignored as a problem—impacts life expectancy in a comparable and sometimes more devastating way than these other causes. That is certainly the case in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)—the most polluted country in the region and fifth most polluted globally—where particulate pollution in 2020 was nearly 7 times higher than the World Health Organization guideline. As a result, the average resident of the DRC is losing 2.9years off their life expectancy. That’s compared to just 3.6months due to HIV/AIDS. Across Central and West Africa—home to more than 600 million people living in 27 countries —the average person is set to lose 1.6 years off their lives if the current levels of pollution persist. Assuming business as usual, the situation could worsen as energy demands are expected to triple across the African continent by 2030. And yet, only Cameroon has set a national standard for particulate pollution. Further, as of 2019, only a handful of real-time air quality monitoring stations exist throughout the entire region, resulting in a lack of transparent and actionable pollution data. In comparison, about 200 real-time monitors exist in India, which has a smaller land mass than Central and West Africa. The lack of data transparency is a major hindrance to policy action.

#10 – Even a Pandemic-Induced Economic Slowdown Couldn’t Slash Stubborn Global Air Pollution

Year-Over-Year Change in PM2.5 Levels in 2020, the First Year of the Pandemic

During the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, the world’s economy slowed. Yet, the global annual average particulate pollution (PM2.5) was largely unchanged from 2019 levels. In some of the most polluted regions of the world, like South Asia and parts of Southeast Asia, pollution rose. Other regions, like China, saw a continued decrease thanks to their multi-year effort to confront the problem; while fewer large fire events in parts of Southeast Asia contributed to decreases there. The fact that pollution levels largely remained flat, or even increased, even as economies stalled across the world, underscores that pollution is a stubborn problem.