Gasping for Breath: How Air Pollution Is Cutting Lives Short Globally
Breathing can be hazardous to your health.” This stark reality is underscored by the latest findings from the 2023 Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) report, which confirms that air pollution is the most significant environmental threat to human life, slashing global life expectancy by an average of 2.3 years.
The report paints a grim picture of the air quality crisis, with six countries—India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, and Indonesia—bearing three-quarters of the global air pollution burden. The particulate matter, PM2.5, invisible to the naked eye but deadly in its impact, is now recognized as the world’s most substantial external risk to human health.
The comparison is startling: the reduction in life expectancy due to air pollution is akin to the health risks of smoking tobacco, it’s over three times more dangerous than alcohol consumption and unsafe water sources, and it exceeds the risks of transport injuries by more than fivefold. Even more concerning is its comparison to HIV/AIDS, with air pollution’s impact being more than seven times as deadly.
Despite the alarming statistics, the battle against air pollution is not being fought on an even playing field. The countries most affected by poor air quality often lack the resources and infrastructure that have led to improvements in air quality elsewhere. This disparity means that while some parts of the world enjoy relatively clean air, others are suffocated by a toxic atmosphere, shortening lives and reducing the quality of life for billions.
The AQLI report suggests a silver lining: if global fine particulate pollution were reduced to meet the World Health Organization’s guidelines, it would translate into 17.8 billion more life-years for the world’s population. This is not just a number; it represents countless human experiences, achievements, and moments of joy that could be preserved.
Michael Greenstone, the Milton Friedman Distinguished Service Professor in Economics and the mind behind the AQLI, along with his colleagues at the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC), emphasizes the need for more frequent and localized data. Such information could drive media and political action, leading to policies that prioritize clean air and public health.
As we grapple with this invisible killer, the words of Mahatma Gandhi resonate with renewed urgency: “What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another.” The fight for clean air is not just an environmental campaign; it is a crusade for human dignity, health, and survival.