Death is in the Air


Quinn Summerville, Reporter, Avid Breathing Enthusiast

Breathing dirty air exacts a heavy penalty: months, even years, off of your life.

On average worldwide, “air pollution shaves a year off of human life expectancy”, scientists report August 22 in Environmental Science & Technology Letters. In far more polluted regions of Asia and Africa, lives are shortened by even 1.5 to two years on average.

The study, using 2016 country data from the Global Burden of Disease project, is the first to look at country-specific life expectancy impacts of particulate matter such as bits of pollution, known as PM2.5,  that are smaller than 2.5 micrometers, or 30 times smaller than the width of an average human hair. Most other studies display such air pollution impacts in terms of death or disease rates. The new approach is aimed at making the risk more relatable and urgent in society’s eyes, says Joshua Apte, an environmental scientist at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Talking about mortality figures and large body counts, you see people’s eyes glaze over,” Apte says. “People care not just about whether you die — we all die — but also how much younger are you going to be when that happens.”

Apte and his colleagues calculate the potential benefit to each country of limiting ambient PM2.5levels to 10 micrograms per cubic meter of air, which is the standard recommended by the World Health Organization. Many high-income countries, including Canada, already meet this standard, but others, typically in the developing world, frequently have pollution levels exponentially higher.

Through means of meeting the WHO standard, Egyptians could gain back about 1.3 years of life on average, while Chinese life expectancy would increase by an average .76 years, or at least little over nine months. For India, which is among the worst polluted countries in the world, clearing the air to WHO standards would give a 60-year-old person a 20 percent better chance of surviving to 85.

A total of 42 countries, primarily in Africa and Asia, visualized a life expectancy decreased by at least a year due to the fine particulate matter. “A year is a long time, if you think about it for every person in a country,” Apte says. “And everybody benefits when the air is improved.”