Subtle “greatest risk” to human health named, and this is not a new virus

Particulate air pollution continues to reduce global life expectancy by nearly two years, as progress in some countries counterbalances the deterioration in air quality in others, according to the Air Quality Index (AQLI). New data show only modest progress globally in reducing air pollution over the past two decades.

The COVID-19 pandemic, more than ever before in recent history, highlights the importance of protecting public health. However, as countries around the world strive to develop a vaccine against the coronavirus, there is another unnoticed health killer, causing billions of people to lead shorter and more painful lives every day: air pollution.

New data provided by the Air Quality Index (AQLI), which correlates particulate air pollution with its impact on human life expectancy, is disappointing. They show that particle contamination was the greatest risk to human health before COVID-19. And without a strong and sustainable government policy, the threat will continue to a pandemic.

Analysis shows that particulate matter pollution shortens global life expectancy by almost two years, compared to a situation where air quality would meet WHO guidelines.

While the coronavirus threat is serious and deserves every attention it receives, taking on serious air pollution with the same vigor will enable billions of people around the world to lead longer, healthier lives. The solution to the problem lies in reliable public policy. The AQLI informs citizens and policymakers about how particulate matter pollution affects them and their communities and can be used to assess the benefits of policies to reduce pollution.

Michael Greenstone, Milton Friedman Professor of Economics and Creator of AQLI, along with colleagues at the University of Chicago Energy Policy Institute (EPIC)

This is the greatest risk to the health of the world’s population, despite the fact that more and more viruses make the headlines more often, AQLI experts say.



Working discreetly inside the human body, particulate matter contamination has a more devastating effect on life expectancy than infectious diseases (such as tuberculosis and HIV / AIDS), bad habits (cigarette smoking), and even war.

Nearly a quarter of the world’s population lives in the four South Asian countries that are among the most polluted in the world: Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan. Their lives have been shortened by an average of 5 years since they were exposed to pollution levels that are 44% higher now than two decades ago.

Particulate matter pollution is also a serious problem in Southeast Asia, where traditional sources of pollution – vehicles, power plants, industry – combine with forest and arable fires, resulting in lethal concentrations of pollutants in the air. As a result, 89% of Southeast Asia’s population lives in areas where particulate matter pollution exceeds WHO guidelines. Growing megacities such as Jakarta, Singapore, Ho Chi Minh City, and Bangkok are contributing to the worsening situation.

The good news is that there is now a list of countries that have decided to take action and have succeeded in cleaning the air.

A particularly poignant example is China, where the “war on pollution” began in 2013. Since then, 75% of the world’s emission reductions have occurred in China. The country has reduced particulate pollution by nearly 40%. If these cuts continue, Chinese citizens can expect to live 2 years longer than before the aggressive reforms.

The United States, Europe, and Japan have also been successful in reducing pollution thanks to tough policies following public calls for change. However, the progress of their success further underscores the scale and speed of China’s progress. It took the United States and Europe several decades and recessions to achieve the same pollution reduction that China achieved in 5 years while continuing to grow its economy. Even with this progress, there are still countries where environmental pollution causes significant damage to human health.