In the News

August 3, 2023

The Link Between Air Quality and Your Longevity

AQLI's Director Christa Hasenkopf speaks with The Wall Street Journal on the health effects of air pollution.

Air quality and your lifespan are more connected than you might think.

Most of us know that air pollution is linked to short-term health issues, from coughing and trouble breathing to increased heart attack risk on bad air days. A growing body of research suggests the effects can last longer, too, potentially shortening lifespans and raising our risk for dementia and other conditions. 

The average person on the planet loses 2.2 years of life expectancy from exposure to the type of particulates in wildfires, PM2.5, according to the latest estimates from a research initiative at the University of Chicago.

During a summer that has seen many parts of the U.S. blanketed by wildfire smoke and heat waves, researchers say there are things people can do to protect their health.

There is no set amount of time that constitutes too much exposure to poor air, but environmental scientists say that long-term exposure can damage your health and that more exposure is worse. 

“It’s a little bit like a diet,” says Christa Hasenkopf, who directs the University of Chicago’s Air Quality Life Index, which tracks the health effects of air pollution. “You can have bad days and it won’t affect your overall trend, but as soon as those bad days become your average, that’s when you start having an issue.”

It’s not entirely clear how much short periods of exposure to highly polluted air can affect a person’s long-term health, though research is starting to offer clues. 

One Stanford University study found that for each day a pregnant woman was exposed to wildfire smoke during pregnancy, the risk of premature birth went up by nearly half a percentage point. Other research shows that wildfire exposure leads to an increased risk in children for reduced lung function and low birth weight, which are associated with long-term health issues.

“These are hints that we’re piecing together that even these short, extreme events could contribute to overall life-shortening,” says Michael Brauer, principal research scientist at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation whose research focuses on air quality and health. Over the long term, he says, “it’s a contributing factor to the major killers that affect all of us.”

Those killers include lung and heart disease, stroke, diabetes and dementia, researchers say. Fine particles like PM2.5 are so small that they can penetrate the lower respiratory tract and filter into the bloodstream, causing inflammation and raising the risk for a variety of long-term health problems. The diameter of a single strand of human hair is about 30 times bigger than the largest fine particle, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

At the University of Chicago, the Air Quality Life Index’s estimate that air pollution takes more than two years off the average person’s life compares real-world conditions with World Health Organization guidelines. Those guidelines say that the average annual concentration of particulate matter shouldn’t be higher than 5 micrograms per cubic meter of air.

Continue reading on The Wall Street Journal…