Air pollution is shortening lives worldwide

a satellite image of air pollution over India
This satellite photo shows air pollution over India, where it shortens the average life span by about 1.5 years.

Air is free. But breathing dirty air has a price. Indeed, it can cost someone’s life span months — even years, a new study finds.

Worldwide, air pollution lowers average life spans by a year. In more polluted parts of Asia and Africa, dirty air shortens lives up to twice that much. Scientists shared their new findings August 22 in Environmental Science & Technology Letters.

The study used data gathered in 2016 as part of a project known as the Global Burden of Disease. It was the first major country-by-country look at the link between life spans and what’s known as fine PM (PM is short for particulate matter). Less than 2.5 micrometers across, these bits of pollution are less than one-thirtieth the width of an average human hair. Such pollution is known as PM2.5.

Air pollution has been linked to many health problems. Among them are lung and heart diseases. Most earlier studies had looked at how tiny air pollutants affected rates of illness or death. But when you talk about such rates, “you see people’s eyes glaze over,” says Joshua Apte. He’s an environmental scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. By instead looking at life expectancy, his team had hoped to make the threat easier to understand.

“People,” he explains, “care not just about whether you die — we all die — but also how much younger are you going to be when that happens.”

All countries suffer

Pollution makes a difference even in countries with relatively clean air, such as the United States and Australia. Even the low levels of PM2.5 in them costs their average residents a few months of their lives.

PM2.5 is what scientists call tiny particles of pollution in the air. Higher levels of PM2.5 can cause health problems and cut months, if not years, from the average life span. This analysis, based on 2016 data, shows how pollution affects life expectancy in different parts of…

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