Low-Level Pollution Worldwide Is More Deadly Than Cigarettes

Air pollution is becoming more prominent and deadly, but by how much.

The long debate over human-driven air pollution is over, as there is a direct correlation between burning fossil fuels, according to a new report by the Energy Policy Institute At the University of Chicago (EPIC). The biggest threat to human health globally is air pollution, leading to disease, cancer, strokes, or heart attacks.

Some diseases are preventable, people quit smoking and reduce their exposure to harmful inhalants, according to EPIC, but they cannot protect themselves from the air around them. Microscopic particles penetrate deeply into human lung tissue.

The average life expectancy of a cigarette smoker is reduced by 1.9 years on average, according to a report by EPIC, with alcohol and drug use reducing life by nine months. Other factors include unsafe water, sanitation reducing life expectancy by seven months, Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) reducing average life by four months, malaria reducing average life by three months, and factors such as conflict and terrorism reducing average life by seven days.

While the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic took place, the global economy came to a screeching halt. According to EPIC AQLI, global annual particulate pollution was at a level of PM2.5, which was not much different than the levels found in 2019.

During this time, evidence was amassing that even low-level air pollution put human health at risk. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the guidelines changed from 10 µg/m³ to 5 µg/m³/. This new change is considered a safe level of exposure to particulate pollution. These new guidelines placed 97.3% of the world’s population in unsafe zone.

According to an AQLI Study, particulate air pollution takes 2.2 years off global average life expectancy, or 17 billion life-years accumulatively worldwide, compared to a world meeting the WHO guideline (5 µg/m3).

Life expectancy reduction is relative to smoking, three times higher than alcohol use and unsanitary water, six times higher than HIV and AIDS, and 89 times higher than average life reduction of conflict and terrorism.

This impact on life expectancy is comparable to that of smoking, more than that alcohol use and unsafe water, six times that of HIV/AIDS, and 89 times that of conflict and terrorism.

“It would be a global emergency if Martians came to Earth and sprayed a substance that caused the average person on the planet to lose more than two years of life expectancy. This is similar to the situation that prevails in many parts of the world, except we are spraying the substance, not some invaders from outer space,” says Michael Greenstone, creator of the AQLI.

According to EPIC AQLI, the following regions are considered unsafe:

South Asia | This region of the world is one of the most affected on this list, since 2013 contributing 44% of global pollution, affecting half the population’s health. People in this region expect to lose five years of life expectancy if the levels stay as high as they are, and even more life in more polluted areas.

Southeast Asia | Nearly 99% of Southeast Asia is considered unsafe, and pollution increases by as much as 25% in a single year in select regions. Regions such as the cities of Mandalay, Hanoi, and Jakarta will expect to lose 3-4 years off their lives on average.

Central and West Africa | Most of Central and West Africa, 97%, is considered unsafe. The AQLI finds those living in the most polluted areas to reduce their life by five years on average. Air pollution is comparable to the damage from HIV, AIDS, and malaria.

China | If China were to meet WHO guidelines, they could gain 2.6 years of their lives back. While the country has drastically reduced its pollution since 2013, it still has a long way to go. From 2013-to 2020, pollution fell 40 percent, adding nearly two years on average to life expectancy, and about 9% between 2019-2020. Our global pollution would be much worse if China did not reduce pollution.

The United States and Europe | Air pollution policies have drastically reduced air pollution. Evidence from studies on low-level air pollution shows almost all of the United States and Europe do not meet the new WHO guidelines. If the US met guidelines, 68 million years of life could be saved, with 527 million years if Europe met guidelines.

If humans do not meet the new guidelines set by the WHO, death, disease, and reduced life expectancy will be what await our future.

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