South Asia Ranks Worst For Air Pollution’s Impact on Life Expectancy: Report

In no other location is the deadly impact of pollution more visible than in South Asia, home to the four most polluted countries in the world and nearly a quarter of the global population, according to the latest report from the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI).

Produced by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC), the AQLI is based on frontier research by EPIC’s director Michael Greenstone that quantified the causal relationship between human exposure to air pollution and reduced life expectancy.

“Three-quarters of air pollution’s impact on global life expectancy occurs in just six countries, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, China, Nigeria and Indonesia, where people lose one to more than six years off their lives because of the air they breathe,” says Michael Greenstone, the creator of the AQLI along with colleagues at EPIC.

In Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan, the AQLI data reveals that residents are expected to lose about 5 years off their lives on average if the current high levels of pollution persist, and more in the most polluted regions—accounting for more than half of the total life years lost globally due to pollution.

In other Asian jurisdictions, the AQLI report says China has had remarkable success, reducing pollution by 42.3 percent since 2013, the year before the country began a “war against pollution.”

Due to these improvements, the average Chinese citizen can expect to live 2.2 years longer, provided the reductions are sustained. However, the pollution in China is still six times higher than the WHO guideline, taking 2.5 years off life expectancy.

Like South Asia, almost all of Southeast Asia (99.9%) is now considered to have unsafe levels of pollution, with pollution increasing in a single year by as much as 25% in some regions.

Residents living in the most polluted parts of Southeast Asia are expected to lose 2 to 3 years of life expectancy on average.

Vastly Unequal Funding

The AQLI report If the world were to permanently reduce fine particulate pollution (PM2.5) to meet the World Health Organization’s guideline, the average person would add 2.3 years onto their life expectancy—or a combined 17.8 billion life-years saved worldwide.

This data produced by AQLI makes it clear that particulate pollution remains the world’s most significant external risk to human health, with the impact on life expectancy comparable to that of smoking, more than 3 times that of alcohol use and unsafe water, and more than 5 times that of transport injuries like car crashes. Yet, the pollution challenge worldwide is vastly unequal.

The collective current investments in global air quality infrastructure also do not match where air pollution is having its greatest toll on human life.

While there is a large global fund for HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis that annually disburses US$4 billion toward the issues, there is no equivalent set of coordinated resources for air pollution.

The entire continent of Africa receives under US$300,000 in philanthropic funds toward air pollution, while just US$1.4 million goes to Asia, outside of China and India. Meanwhile, Europe, the United States, and Canada receive US$34 million, according to the Clean Air Fund.