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Air pollution cuts life expectancy by more than two years – study


NEWS ANALYSIS | AGENCIES | Ugandans could potentially live an extra two years if that if global PM2.5 levels were reduced to the five micrograms per cubic metre recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO),  according to a new study.

Ugandans have a life expectancy of about 64 years according to the Uganda Bureau of statistics and the new study says that could improve to 66 years if the air quality got better and matched WHO recommended levels.

The study called the `Air Quality Life Index ‘or AQLI converts air pollution concentrations into their impact on life expectancy. From this, the public and policymakers alike can determine the benefits of air pollution policies in perhaps the most important measure that exists: longer lives.

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.

“By converting air pollution concentrations into tangible terms—its impact on life expectancy—the AQLI establishes particulate air pollution as the single greatest threat to human health globally,” says Greenstone.

He says if global PM2.5 levels were reduced to the five micrograms per cubic metre recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO), average life expectancy would rise by an average of 2.2 years. Some countries, such as Bangladesh would gain as much as 7 years and India 5 years.

“This unique approach makes the AQLI the first pollution index to show what the threat of air pollution means to a person’s life anywhere in the world. It can also illustrate the gains in life expectancy that could be achieved by reducing particulate pollution concentrations to meet the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines, existing national air quality standards, or user-defined levels.

The impact of chronic air pollution on life expectancy is comparable to that of smoking and far worse than HIV/AIDS or terrorism.

More than 97% of the global population lives in areas where air pollution exceeds recommended levels, the latest Air Quality Life Index shows. It used satellite data to measure levels of PM2.5, hazardous floating particles that damage the lungs.


Air pollution has been neglected as a public health issue, with funding to address the problem still inadequate, the study warned.

“Now that our understanding of pollution’s impact has improved, there’s a stronger case for governments to prioritise it as an urgent policy issue,” said Christa Hasenkopf, director of EPIC’s Air Quality Life Index.

Residents of South Asia lose an estimated five years of life as a result of smog, the study said, with India accounting for around 44% of the world’s increase in air pollution since 2013.

Residents of China could live an average of 2.6 years longer if WHO standards were reached, though life expectancy has improved by around two years since 2013, when the country began a “war on pollution” that cut PM2.5 by around 40%.

EPIC’s calculations were based on a previous study showing that sustained exposure to an additional 10 micrograms per cubic metre of PM2.5 would reduce life expectancy by nearly a year.

Not a single country managed to meet the WHO’s 5-microgram standard in 2021, according to a survey of pollution data published earlier this year.

Pollution shifts

For centuries, air pollution in Africa has been dominated by open burning of biomass. This is a common practice by farmers in the dry season to clear land and to prepare for the next sowing season. The smoke produced is full of pollutants, bad for people and the environment.

This is now changing, in cities at least.

Urban pollution sources now surpass rural biomass burning as the main cause for worsening air pollution in cities. These include road traffic, burning of waste, and household use of fuels like charcoal and wood.

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