Almost the entire population of the world is inhaling polluted air. According to the latest findings of the World Health Organization (WHO), 99 percent of people live in areas where air pollution exceeds safe levels.
Contamination cuts an average of 2.2 years from the global average life expectancy per person – or a total of 17 billion years of life.
This impact on life expectancy is comparable to that of smoking, more than three times the use of alcohol and unsafe water, six times that of HIV / AIDS and 89 times that of conflict and terrorism.
“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 two years of life expectancy,” he explains
“This is similar to the situation that prevails in many parts of the world, except we are spraying the substance, not some invaders from outer space.”
Unfortunately, all this has a dramatic impact on the health of the population.
Microscopic air pollutants pass before our body’s defenses, reaching deep into our respiratory and circulatory systems, damaging the lungs, heart, and brain.
One-third of deaths from strokes, lung cancer and heart disease are due to air pollution.
What is air pollution – and what does it do to the population ?
Dirty air kills millions of people every year.
Because the invisible pollution is airborne, it can be hard to escape. In towns and cities, the main source of such pollution is road transport, which churns out pollutants like nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter.
Other sources of pollution include burning fuel, emissions from power generation, and wildfires. Industrial factories spew out aerosol pollution, putting people who live nearby at greater risk.
Where is air pollution the worst and what can we do about it?
Air quality is poorest in South and Southeast Asia, where 99.9 per cent of people breathe unsafe air.
According to the University of Chicago researchers, residents in south Asia are expected to lose about 5 years off their lives on average if the current high levels of pollution persist.
It isn’t too late to fix air pollution
However, it’s not all bad, the researchers insist.
“Fortunately, history teaches us that it does not need to be this way. In many places around the planet, like the United States, strong policies, supported by an equally strong willingness for change, have succeeded in reducing air pollution,” Dr Greenstone says.
In China, pollution levels have been slowly but steadily improving since the government announced a ‘war on pollution’ in 2013.
In 2020, pollution fell by about 40 per cent. Though this can be partly attributed to the COVID-19 shut down, it also fell 9 per cent the preceding year.
If China met WHO guidelines for air-quality, residents would gain an average of 2.6 years of life expectancy.
Likewise, in the US and Europe, researchers note that “sustained enforcement of strong air pollution policies in the United States and Europe have significantly reduced particulate pollution.”
There is still a long way to go – if global pollution levels were to meet the new WHO guideline, 68 million life-years in the United States and 527 million life-years in Europe could be saved.
Governments can improve air pollution levels by taxing high emitters and creating stricter emissions standards. Investing in non-polluting sources – like electric cars – can help too.