The VICE Guide to Right Now

Indonesians Can Live Up to Six Years Less Due to Air Pollution, New Study Finds

Those handy face masks aren’t enough to deter the worst effects of Indonesia’s air pollution.
translated by Jade Poa
19 August 2019, 7:50am
jakarta pollution
Jakarta pollution via Shutterstock

A new study found that air pollution not only causes respiratory infections, but also potentially shortens life expectancy. This is the case in Indonesia, a nation that recently received the title of worst air pollution in the world.

According to the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago’s Air Quality Life Index (AQLI), air pollution has reduced the average Indonesian’s life expectancy by 1.2 years. Jakartans in particular should expect a decrease of 2.3 years in life expectancy if exposed to current levels of air pollution throughout their lives. Of all the islands, Sumatrans have it the worst, with a projected decrease of 5.6 years.

“As countries navigate the dual challenges of sustaining economic growth and protecting the environment and public health, the AQLI shows not only the damage caused by pollution but also the gains that can be made with policies to address it,” Michael Greenstone, the University of Chicago professor who created the index with his colleagues, said in his report.

In this experiment, Greenstone and his colleagues based their research on previous natural experiments, allowing them to focus on the effects of air pollution on human health independently from other factors like lifestyle and diet. He then combined this method with results from hyperlocalized particulate pollution monitors, allowing him to measure air quality even in small cities.

The AQLI shows that in the past two decades, air pollution has become increasingly life-threatening to Indonesians. Between 1998 and 2016, pollution concentration increased by 171 percent, placing Indonesia among the top 20 nations in the world with the worst air pollution. In 2016, 80 percent of all Indonesians lived in areas with average particulate pollution levels exceeding WHO standards.

The detrimental conclusion of this study comes as no surprise to many Indonesians. The negative effects of air pollution exceed those of smoking, war, and contagious diseases like tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.

But the report isn’t entirely pessimistic, stating that if Indonesia were to follow China’s footsteps in improving its air quality, “the typical Indonesian could expect to live eight months longer.”

The air pollution situation varies from province to province. Throughout Sumatra and Kalimantan, the main causes of air pollution are forest fires and deforestation. In Jakarta, it’s transportation and industry, meaning the government’s response to these diverse problems cannot be uniform.

Jalal, a researcher at the Thamrin School of Climate Change and Sustainability, who like many Indonesians goes by only one name, said the report’s finding that air pollution shortens life expectancy is just the tip of the iceberg. Pollution, he said, also affects productivity, which in turn affects the economy. “Those who spend time in the hospital sacrifice school and work days, leading to declining health, productivity, and environment,” Jalal told VICE.

Ultimately, it’s Indonesia’s people who will get the short end of the stick. The Jakarta Post reported that the Jakarta Department of Health recorded 905,270 cases of upper respiratory tract infections in Jakarta so far this year. Meanwhile, 2018 saw a total of 1,846,180 cases. That’s almost a fifth of the city's population.

This article originally appeared on VICE ID.