Air pollution is taking more time off of people’s lives than tobacco smoking, and fossil fuels are the major culprit, according to a new study.
Poor air quality is reducing global life expectancy by almost three years, the scientists with the German Center for Cardiovascular Research found. And many of those early deaths can be directly attributed to pollution from the burning of fossil fuels. If human-produced air pollution were to be cut back, 5.5 million of the approximately 8 million annual deaths attributable to poor air quality could be avoided every year. And the researchers found that if we stopped burning fossil fuels, life expectancy globally would increase by about a year.
But as things currently stand, the burning of fossil fuels is heavily contributing to poor air quality around the world, and the researchers found about 70 countries where air quality impacted life expectancy more than smoking. China, India, and Chad top the list.
"Our results show there is an ‘air pollution pandemic,’” Thomas Münzel of the University Medical Center of the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, told France24. “About two-thirds of premature deaths are attributable to human-made pollution, mainly from fossil fuel use.”
Their new study, published Tuesday, compares premature deaths that could be attributable to poor quality to other things that kill lots of people: HIV reduces global life expectancy by about eight months. Violence, by under four months. Parasites and vector-borne diseases take about seven months off of global life expectancy. Smoking takes about two years and two months off of global life expectancy.
Outdoor air quality shortens lives more than any of those factors: It’s reducing globally life expectancy by about two years and 11 months.
“The loss of life expectancy from air pollution is much higher than many other risk factors, and even higher than smoking,” co-author Jos Lelieveld of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, told the Guardian. “That was quite unexpected, I must say.”
The reduction in life expectancy from poor air pollution varies significantly by country. Chad, in central Africa, has the worst air pollution in the world. There, the researchers estimate that poor air quality is reducing life expectancy by a full seven years and four months. That’s more than three times the global loss of life expectancy from smoking.
In China, air quality is reducing life expectancy by about four years. Poor air quality in India is cutting an estimated three years and 10 months off of people’s lives. In Japan, air quality’s reducing life expectancy by over two years, comparable to the global life expectancy reduction from tobacco smoking.
That’s not to say that walking around outside is worse for you than smoking a pack a day. Fewer people smoke cigarettes than breathe the air, and this is a population wide study. What the researchers found is not that dirty air is worse than cigarettes, but that poor air, which even non-smokers have to breathe, is killing more people than smoking.
To come up with their findings, the researchers used a new model that measures the impact of particulate matter and ozone pollution, data on levels of exposure of these pollutants, and mortality figures from 2015. Based on that data, they estimated the number of deaths that could be attributable to air pollution.
Because they’re only measuring two types of air pollution and the science isn’t quite settled on all of the health conditions that air pollution could be responsible for, the researchers told The Guardian that their findings are estimations.
What is clear, they say, is that air pollution is killing a higher proportion of people than previously known, and efforts need to be made to reduce it.
“The realisation that air pollution is a major health risk can contribute to the willingness to phase-out fossil fuels — with the co-benefit of reducing climate warming,” Lelieveld told France24.
Cover: SHANXI, CHINA -NOVEMBER 26: (CHINA, HONG KONG, MACAU, TAIWAN OUT) Smoke billows from stacks as a Chinese woman wears as mask while walking in a neighborhood next to a coal fired power plant on November 26, 2015 in Shanxi, China.(Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)