PM2.5 pollution shortens human lives by more than a year, according to a new open-access study from a team of environmental engineers and public health researchers published in the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters. Better air quality could lead to a significant extension of lifespans around the world.
This study marks the first time that data on PM2.5 and lifespan has been studied together in order to examine the global variations in how they affect overall life expectancy.
Source: Apte et al.
The researchers looked at outdoor air pollution from particulate matter (PM) smaller than 2.5 microns. These fine particles can enter deep into the lungs, and breathing PM2.5 is associated with increased risk of heart attacks, strokes, respiratory diseases and cancer. PM2.5 pollution comes from power plants, cars and trucks, fires, agriculture and industrial emissions.
Led by Joshua Apte in the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin, the team used data from the Global Burden of Disease Study to measure PM2.5 air pollution exposure and its consequences in 185 countries. They then quantified the national impact on life expectancy for each individual country as well as on a global scale.
The fact that fine particle air pollution is a major global killer is already well known. And we all care about how long we live. Here, we were able to systematically identify how air pollution also substantially shortens lives around the world. What we found is that air pollution has a very large effect on survival—on average about a year globally.—Joshua Apte
In the context of other significant phenomena negatively affecting human survival rates, Apte said this is a big number.
Upper panel a: How air pollution shortens human life expectancy around the world. Lower panel b: Gains in life expectancy that could be reached by meeting World Health Organization guidelines for air quality around the world. Credit: Cockrell School of Engineering, The University of Texas at Austin.
It’s considerably larger than the benefit in survival we might see if we found cures for both lung and breast cancer combined. In countries like India and China, the benefit for elderly people of improving air quality would be especially large. For much of Asia, if air pollution were removed as a risk for death, 60-year-olds would have a 15 percent to 20 percent higher chance of living to age 85 or older.—Joshua Apte
The study was funded through the Center for Air, Climate, and Energy Solutions, an interdisciplinary research collaboration supported by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Apte was joined in this study by colleagues from University of British Columbia, Imperial College London, Brigham Young University and the Health Effects Institute.
Joshua S. Apte, Michael Brauer, Aaron J. Cohen, Majid Ezzati, and C. Arden Pope, III (2018) “Ambient PM2.5 Reduces Global and Regional Life Expectancy” Environmental Science & Technology Letters doi: 10.1021/acs.estlett.8b00360