Air Pollution Lowers Expected Global Lifespan

By Ryan K. Kilgallon

Power plants contribute greatly to US air pollution, a major global health concern (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

A recent study conducted at the Cockrell School of Engineering at University of Texas at Austin demonstrated that air pollution can shorten human life expectancy by over a year.1 Roughly half of the population of the United States alone lives in areas with dangerously-high levels of air pollution.2 The results of this study could consequently impact the health of millions of individuals. In the very first study comparing air pollution and lifespan, researchers in Austin, led by Joshua Apte, have found that air quality may have a far more drastic impact on human life than originally anticipated.

In order to analyze air pollution across the world, the researchers focused on studying the effects of pollutants  smaller than 2.5 microns (a micron is equal to one millionth of a meter). Particles this small are often a result of emissions from power plants, cars, and industrial machines. Despite their small size, however, they may have large consequences, such as increasing risk of heart attack, stroke, respiratory disease, and cancer.1

Although it may be considered common knowledge that air pollution is a major global health threat, researchers strived to quantify this effect. Hence, they used air pollution data to determine the repercussions of pollution on human life in 185 different countries. After the measurements were completed, the researchers concluded that air pollution had a statistically significant effect on survival; on average, human life expectancy was shortened by one year as a direct result of air pollution.

Compared to other global phenomena, this estimate is quite high and warrants attention in scientific, cultural, and political spheres. The final component of the study hypothesized that if air quality was improved in countries such as India and China (two countries with some of the largest pollution emissions), life expectancy would increase, especially impacting the geriatric population. In fact, as many as 15 to 20 percent of 60 year olds would have a higher chance of living to age 85 or longer.

This research is particularly important not only because of its drastic and real impact on human life expectancy, but also in consideration of the large number of individuals in underdeveloped countries who succumb to the threat of air pollution each year. Simple habits – such as reducing trips in cars, avoiding burning trash, and switching to environmentally safe paints and cleaning products – have the capacity to create significant and tangible change.3

References:

1 University of Texas at Austin. (2018, August 22). Air pollution reduces global life expectancy by more than one year. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 14, 2018 from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/08/180822112406.htm

2 Roppolo, M. (2014, April 30). Air pollution dangerously high for almost half of U.S., report finds. Retrieved September 14, 2018 from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/air-pollution-dangerously-high-for-almost-half-of-us/

3 (2017, April 10). Actions You Can Take to Reduce Air Pollution. Retrieved September 14, 2018 from https://www3.epa.gov/region1/airquality/reducepollution.html

4 Apte, J. et al. (2018, August 22). Ambient PM2.5 Reduces Global and Regional Life Expectancy. Environmental Science & Technology Letters. Retrieved September 14, 2018 from https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.estlett.8b00360

Link to Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Air_pollution#/media/File:Air_pollution_by_industrial_chimneys.jpg

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