Air pollution cuts life expectancy 2 years, comparable to smoking

More than three times worse for global lifespan than drinking alcohol

Photo of Angela Mulka
On June 1, 2022, the federal government sued the EES Coke Battery plant on Zug Island (pictured), alleging the facility violated the Clean Air Act. The Environmental Protection Agency claims the plant significantly increased its sulfur dioxide emissions endangering the health of residents in the surrounding Wayne County neighborhoods including River Rouge and southwest Detroit.

On June 1, 2022, the federal government sued the EES Coke Battery plant on Zug Island (pictured), alleging the facility violated the Clean Air Act. The Environmental Protection Agency claims the plant significantly increased its sulfur dioxide emissions endangering the health of residents in the surrounding Wayne County neighborhoods including River Rouge and southwest Detroit.

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Air pollution, which is 60% from manmade sources like burning fossil fuels, takes 2.2 years off the average global life expectancy, according to a report published on June 14 by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago.

The impact on the global lifespan is comparable to the impact of smoking, six times higher than that of HIV/AIDS, more than three times that of alcohol use and unsafe water and 89 times that of conflict and terrorism, according to the report. First-hand cigarette smoke, for instance, reduces global life expectancy by about 1.9 years.

The chart shows the life expectancy of air pollution compared with other more well-known causes of harm to human health, like smoking and HIV/AIDS.

The chart shows the life expectancy of air pollution compared with other more well-known causes of harm to human health, like smoking and HIV/AIDS.

Graphic provided/Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago

"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 2 years of life expectancy," Michael Greenstone, director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, said in a June 14 press release.

"This is similar to the situation that prevails in many parts of the world," Greenstone continued. "Except we are spraying the substance, not some invaders from outer space."

The report, developed by Greenstone and his team at the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago and called the Air Quality Life Index, is a measurement of the air pollution in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic was reducing activity and transportation.

"It is important to note that air pollution is also deeply intertwined with climate change," the Air Quality Life Index's executive summary states. "Both challenges are primarily caused by the same culprit: fossil fuel emissions from power plants, vehicles and other industrial sources. These challenges also present a rare win-win opportunity, because policy can simultaneously reduce dependence on fossil fuels that will allow people to live longer and healthier lives and reduce the costs of climate change."

The Air Quality Life Index notes that despite the slowdown of the economy during the pandemic, the global annual average for PM2.5 pollution (particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter — hundreds of times smaller than a grain of salt) stayed largely the same in 2019 and 2020.

Particulate matter air pollution is suspended in the air and categorized by its size. The smaller it is, the deeper it can get into the body, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

The World Health Organization lowered its threshold for safe exposure to PM2.5 in 2021 from an annual average of 10 micrograms per cubic meter to five micrograms per cubic meter, according to the report.

Exposure to PM2.5 pollution is linked to asthma and respiratory disease, heart problems, high blood pressure, cancer, central nervous system disorders like epilepsy and autism and mental illness, according to WHO. 

"The WHO’s decision to revise its guideline by such a significant amount is a powerful signal that air pollution is more deadly than initially thought," the Air Quality Life Index stated.

Following the change, most of the world — 97.3% of the global population — experiences a level of air pollution exposure that’s considered unsafe, according to reporting by Environmental Health News.

The Air Quality Life Index found that reducing air pollution to meet the more stringent international health guidelines would increase the global average life expectancy from roughly 72 to 74.2 years.

And, in total, the world’s population would gain 17 billion life years.

"With this information, it is possible to develop strategic and cost-effective approaches to achieve clean air. The importance of such efforts jumps out of the numbers," Christa Hasenkopf, director of the Air Quality Life Index Center wrote.

"The average person on the planet currently loses 2.2 years of life expectancy because of exposure to particulate pollution. Meanwhile, funding to address air pollution does not match the scale of the problem," Hasenkopf continued. "As just one example, globally, less than $45 million is spent by all philanthropies on air pollution each year, which is just 0.1 percent of total annual grantmaking."

The American Medical Association, the country’s largest physician trade group, voted on June 13 to adopt a policy to declare climate change a public health crisis. The full statement is available here.