In the News
September 18, 2023
September 18, 2023
How many years does breathing polluted air take off our lives? For a dozen countries in Southeast Asia and Africa, the answer is devastating: on average, the inhabitants of Bangladesh live almost seven years less; those in India, five years less, and those in the Democratic Republic of Congo, essentially three years less, according to the Air Quality of Life Index (AQLI), recently published by the University of Chicago. The report concludes that if nothing changes, the air that the world’s inhabitants breathe will take an average of about 2.3 years off their lives. In other words, this study says that, around the world, air pollution already kills as much as tobacco, three times more than alcohol consumption, five times more than traffic accidents and seven times more than AIDS.
“We are talking about an invisible killer and the major public health problem of our time,” María Neira, the director of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Department of Public Health and Environment, tells this newspaper. “We never read: this person died because his lungs were exhausted from breathing bad air, which paved the way for lung cancer and the heart attack he suffered, and yet seven million people die prematurely each year from diseases associated with air pollution. I think this figure should make us stop and reflect.”
This ominous calculation of the amount of time polluted air steals from people’s lives depends on the level of pollution, how long one lives in the affected area, and the age and state of health of the person, but there are particularly hard-hit places, all in the Global South, where people are “suffocating,” experts say. New Delhi, the Gazipur district in Bangladesh, the regions of Mai-Ndombe, Kwilu, and Kasaï, east of Kinshasa, the Mahottari area in Nepal and the city of Mixco in Guatemala, offer particularly serious figures in terms of life expectancy lost through the simple act of breathing, the AQLI report explains.
“In India, surgeons are operating on 17-year-olds whose lungs are similar to those of an 80-year-old who has smoked all his adult life,” Neira says…
…According to the University of Chicago report, Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan — which account for almost a quarter of the world’s population — have the worst pollution rates in the world and their inhabitants’ life expectancy will decrease by an average of five years if pollution levels persist. Since the turn of the century, the degree of particulate pollution in these countries has increased by more than 50% due to industrialization, economic development, and population growth, which have boosted energy demand and fossil fuel use across the region.
In sub-Saharan Africa, while AIDS and malaria remain the top health priorities, the impact of exposure to particulate pollutants is already equally serious: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi are among the world’s most polluted countries.
“Unfortunately, the countries experiencing some of the worst pollution levels today do not have the tools to address these basic deficiencies in air quality management, such as generating high-quality data,” say the authors of the University of Chicago report, Michael Greenstone and Christa Hasenkopf. For example, they note that only 6.8% and 3.7% of governments in Asia and Africa, respectively, provide information about air quality.