….. and residents of the state of Delhi could live another 10 years, according to the researchers who have worked out the Air Quality Life Index report. The picture is as hazy elsewhere in SouthAsia.
As this piece is being written, the AQI in the East Delhi locality OneWorld SouthAsia works from is in excess of 200 – way above a minimal quality. Needless to say, this is a normal day in this part of India’s National Capital Region.
Now, say researchers, such air reduces the life – in other words, people can live longer if the air they breathe is cleaner. The researchers at the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute say that most of the world breathes unsafe air, taking more than two years off global life expectancy. The researchers emphasise that [articulate pollution remained high even while COVID-19 slowed the global economy. At the same time, mounting evidence on the health impacts of pollution at low levels led to new guidelines that brought most of the world into the unsafe zone.
The researchers, who have got together the Air Quality Life Index report have put the blame on microscopic air pollution and the burning of fossil fuels.
For instance, pollution due to the most minute of particulate matter, also called PM2.5 can settle in the human lung’s deepest alveoli or even travel through the bloodstream till it finds a place to settle in – even the brain.
PM2.5 measuring 2.5 microns, often less, is about the diameter of human hair and has been dubbed as a cancer-causing agent.
Strong policies and political will
The AQLI finds that particulate air pollution takes 2.2 years off global average life expectancy, or a combined 17 billion life-years, relative to a world that met the WHO guideline (5 µg/m3). This impact on life expectancy is comparable to that of smoking, more than three times that of alcohol use and unsafe water, six times that of HIV/AIDS, and 89 times that of conflict and terrorism, the University of Chicago team says.
“It would be a global emergency if Martians came to Earth and sprayed a substance that caused the average person on the planet to lose more than two years of life expectancy. This is similar to the situation that prevails in many parts of the world, except we are spraying the substance, not some invaders from outer space,” says Michael Greenstone, the Milton Friedman Distinguished Service Professor in Economics and creator of the AQLI along with colleagues at the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC).
“Fortunately, history teaches us that it does not need to be this way. In many places around the planet, like the United States, strong policies, supported by an equally strong willingness for change, have succeeded in reducing air pollution.”
SouthAsia’s air is the worst
And SouthAsia, the researchers say, has the worst air on planet earth.
“In no region of the world is the deadly impact of pollution more visible than in South Asia, where more than half of the life burden of pollution occurs,” they say.
“Residents there [meaning SouthAsia] are expected to lose about five years off their lives on average if the current high levels of pollution persist, and more in the most polluted regions,” the researchers say, adding that about 44 per cent of the world’s increase in pollution since 2013 has come from India.
In India, the average citizen would stand to gain another five years of life expectancy if the WHO’s guidelines for clean air are met.
But in the state of Delhi, which is also home to the country’s capital, the same gain in life expectancy would be 10.1 years.
Like India, the rest of SouthAsia too has bad air. It is 15-fold worse than acceptable in Bangladesh and nine-times worse in Nepal and Pakistan.
COVID-19 and air pollution
Indeed, all talk of clean air during the COVID-19 pandemic could well be a placebo, at least with respect to PM2.5.
As the researchers say, “During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world’s economy slowed. Yet, the global annual average particulate pollution (PM2.5) was largely unchanged from 2019 levels,” say the scientists. “At the same time, growing evidence shows air pollution — even when experienced at very low levels — hurts human health.”
“This recently led the World Health Organization (WHO) to revise its guideline (from 10 µg/m³ to 5 µg/m³) for what it considers a safe level of exposure of particulate pollution, bringing most of the world — 97.3 per cent of the global population—into the unsafe zone.”