Air pollution greatest global threat to human health: Study
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New Delhi: Air pollution remains the world’s greatest external risk to human health, but most of its impact on global life expectancy is concentrated in just six countries, including India, a study has found.

The University of Chicago‘s Energy Policy Institute (EPIC) in its annual Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) report noted that as global pollution edged upward in 2021, so did its burden on human health.

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

The yet-to-be peer-reviewed data makes clear that particulate pollution remains the world’s greatest external risk to human health. The impact of life expectancy is comparable to that of smoking, more than 3 times that of alcohol use and unsafe water, and over 5 times that of transport injuries like car crashes, they said.

“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,” said Michael Greenstone, a professor at the University of Chicago, US.

“For the last five years, the AQLI’s local information on air quality and its health consequences has generated substantial media and political coverage, but there is an opportunity to complement this annual information with more frequent for example, daily and locally generated data,” Greenstone said.

The researchers noted that many polluted countries lack basic air pollution infrastructure, Asia and Africa being the two most poignant examples.

They contribute 92.7 per cent of life years lost due to pollution. Yet, just 6.8 and 3.7 per cent of governments in Asia and Africa, respectively, provide their citizens with fully open-air quality data, they said.

Just 35.6 and 4.9 per cent of countries in Asia and Africa, respectively, have air quality standards — the most basic building block for policies, according to the researchers.

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

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

The entire continent of Africa receives under 300,000 USD in philanthropic funds towards air pollution — i.e. the current average price of a single-family home in the US.

Just 1.4 million USD goes to Asia, outside of China and India. Europe, the US, and Canada, meanwhile, receive 34 million USD, according to the Clean Air Fund.

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“Timely, reliable, open-air quality data, in particular, can be the backbone of civil society and government clean air efforts — providing the information that people and governments lack and that allows for more informed policy decisions,” said Christa Hasenkopf, the director of AQLI and air quality programs at EPIC.

“Fortunately, we see an immense opportunity to play a role in reversing this by better targeting — and increasing– our funding dollars to collaboratively build the infrastructure that is missing today,” Hasenkopf added.

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