Besides Corona, another killer causing billions of people to lead shorter and sicker lives is air pollution. Particulate pollution is the greatest risk to human health than Corona. If there were no strong and sustained public policy, it would be a major killer next to Corona, according to new data from the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) report by the Energy Policy Institute of the University of Chicago (EPIC).
The analysis finds that particulate pollution cuts global life expectancy by nearly two years. This has consistently been the case over the last two decades, with the average global decline in life expectancy from pollution remaining at two years as improvements in some countries like China were balanced out by worsening conditions in other countries.
“Though the threat of Coronavirus is grave, embracing seriousness of air pollution with a similar vigor would allow billions of people around the world to lead longer and healthier lives,” says Michael Greenstone, the Milton Friedman Distinguished Service Professor in Economics and creator of the AQLI.
“The reality is, no shot in the arm will alleviate air pollution. The solution lies in robust public policy. Particulate pollution has a more devastating impact on life expectancy than communicable diseases like tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, smoking, and even war.”
Nearly a quarter of the global population lives in four countries in South Asia that are among the world’s most polluted — Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan. People living in these countries could see their lives cut short by five years on average, after being exposed to pollution levels that are now 44 per cent higher than they were two decades ago. High pollution across Bangladesh makes it the most polluted country in the world.
Severe pollution in India
The most severe pollution is found in many parts of India, especially northern India, including megacities like Delhi and Kolkata.
Since 1998, average annual particulate pollution in India has increased 42 per cent, cutting 1.8 years off the life of the average resident over those years. A quarter of India’s population is exposed to pollution levels not seen in any other country, with 248 million residents of northern India on track to lose more than 8 years of life expectancy if pollution levels persist.
Lucknow has the highest level of pollution in the country, 11 times greater than the WHO guidelines. Lucknow residents stand to lose 10.3 years of life expectancy if pollution persists, the report warns.
Delhi is also highly polluted. Residents of Delhi could see 9.4 years added to their lives if pollution were reduced to meet the WHO guideline; 6.5 years if pollution met India’s national standard.
Today, India is the world’s second most polluted country. Air pollution shortens the average Indian life expectancy by 5.2 years. Some areas of India fare much worse than average, with air pollution shortening lives by 9.4 years in Delhi and 8.6 years in Uttar Pradesh.
Particulate pollution is a significant concern in Southeast Asia, where traditional pollution sources such as vehicles, power plants and industry combine with forest and cropland fires to produce deadly concentrations. As a result, 89 per cent of Southeast Asia’s 650 million people live in areas where particulate pollution exceeds the WHO guidelines. Growing metropolises like Jakarta, Singapore, Ho Chi Minh, and Bangkok bear the greatest burden.
“The good news is that there is now a track record of countries deciding to take action and succeeding in cleaning the air,” says Greenstone.
China has reduced particulate pollution by nearly 40 per cent. If these reductions are sustained, Chinese citizens can expect to live about 2 years longer than they would have prior to their aggressive reforms. The US, Europe and Japan have likewise experienced success in reducing pollution.