When I was visiting family in New Delhi a couple of years ago, I opened the weather app on my phone and saw something weird. Instead of “sunny” or “cloudy,” there was a forecast of “smoke.” I asked my cousins if there had been a major fire nearby or something, but they laughed and informed me that due to the high level of pollution in the air, they saw that forecast all the time.
The city regularly has some of the most polluted air on Earth, but it’s hardly alone. And according to new research from the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute, all that pollution is literally taking years off people’s lives.
The new Air Quality Index report, released Tuesday, found poor air quality is “the greatest risk to human health” around the globe. From 1998 to 2018, the average person was exposed to particulate pollution concentrations nearly three times higher than those considered safe by the World Health Organization. As a result, particulate air pollution cut human life expectancy by an average of two years.
Globally, most particulate matter—soot, smoke, dust, and other solid and liquid particles suspended in the air–comes from fossil fuel use for transportation and dirty energy. In some regions, such as Southeast Asia, forest and peat fires are also major contributors. The particles are tiny, but they can have a huge effect on respiratory systems and heart health.
In places with particularly high levels of particulate matter in the air, the toll is even higher. Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan are the world four most polluted countries—and where nearly a quarter of the global population resides. Air pollution there is 44% higher than it was just 20 years ago and has reduced life expectancy by 5 years on average.
Amid the covid-19 crisis, air pollution is a particularly concerning problem. An increasing body of literature shows air pollution is making people more likely to get sick and die from the virus. As the report notes, the pandemic has lowered demand for fuel and reduced transportation congestion in countries around the world. As a result, many places have seen massive reductions in air pollution. But as areas reopen, many countries are seeing air quality levels plummet to pre-pandemic levels or even worse.
The report authors urge governments to implement stronger regulations now to prevent further devastation from air pollution. Conveniently, strong regulations on emissions would also help the planet to avert climate catastrophe.
“Though the threat of coronavirus is grave and deserves every bit of the attention it is getting, embracing the seriousness of air pollution with a similar vigor would allow billions of people to lead longer and healthier lives,” Michael Greenstone, creator of the Air Quality Life Index, said in a statement. “The solution lies in robust public policy.”