Air pollution will reduce life expectancy by 3 years on average for every person in the world

Among the many public health problems of global scope, pollution, although greatly underestimated, nevertheless rises to the top of the podium of the causes of mortality. Fine particles and other harmful aerosols cause long-term pulmonary and cardiovascular disease, which causes millions of deaths worldwide; far beyond other factors like HIV or smoking. Recently, a team of researchers has shown that on average, around the world, air pollution reduces life expectancy per capita by around 3 years.

Polluted air is a public health hazard that cannot be evaded. It is widely known that long-term exposure to air pollution enhances the risks of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and the University Medical Center Mainz now calculated in a new study that the global, public loss of life expectancy caused by air pollution is higher than many other risk factors such as smoking, infectious diseases or violence.

Pollution: it reduces life expectancy per capita by around 3 years on average worldwide

Air pollution caused 8.8 million premature deaths worldwide in 2015. This corresponds to an average reduction in life expectancy per capita of 2.9 years. In comparison, tobacco smoking reduces the life expectancy by an average of 2.2 years (7.2 million deaths), HIV / AIDS by 0.7 years (1 million deaths), parasitic and vector-borne diseases such as malaria -- by 0.6 years (600,000 deaths).

"Air pollution exceeds malaria as a cause of premature death by a factor of 19; it exceeds violence by a factor of 17 and HIV / AIDS by a factor of 9. Given the huge impact on public health and the global population, one could say that our results indicate an air pollution pandemic," said Jos Lelieveld, director at Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and first author of the study.

Loss of average life expectancy according to different causes of death for the year 2015. Air pollution reaches the top of the podium with approximately 3 years of life expectancy lost. Credits: Jos Lelieveld et al. 2020

This study is the first to examine the global impact of air pollution on human health compared to other risk factors worldwide. "Our comparison of different global risk factors shows that ambient air pollution is a leading cause of premature mortality and loss of life expectancy, in particular through cardiovascular diseases," says Thomas Münzel, director of the Cardiology Center at the University Medical Center in Mainz and co-author of the paper.

The links between pollution and "pulmonary and cardiovascular" diseases

The scientists examined the connection between exposure to pollutants and the occurrence of diseases. In order to calculate the worldwide exposure to pollutants, which primarily include fine particles and ozone, the researchers used an atmospheric chemical mode. They then combined the exposure data with the Global Exposure -- Mortality Model that derives from many epidemiological cohort studies.

Using these tools and data, scientists investigated the effects of different pollution sources, distinguishing between natural (wildfires, aeolian dust) and anthropogenic emissions, including fossil fuel use. Based on their results they could estimate the disease-specific excess mortality and loss of life expectancy in all countries world-wide.

Percentage loss of life expectancy due to air pollution by different types of diseases: CEV = cerebrovascular disease, COPD = chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, IHD = ischemic heart disease, LC = lung cancer, LRI: infection lower respiratory tract, NCD = other diseases. Credits: Jos Lelieveld et al. 2020

The study results show that the mortality caused by ambient air pollution is highest in East Asia (35 percent) and South Asia (32 percent), followed by Africa (11 percent), Europe (9 percent) and North- and South America (6 percent). Lowest mortality rates are found in Australia (1,5 percent) associated with the strictest air quality standards of all countries.

"We understand more and more that fine particles primarily favor vascular damage and thus diseases such as heart attack, stroke, cardiac arrhythmia and heart failure. It is of outmost importance that air pollution is adopted as a cardiovascular risk factor and that it is distinctly mentioned in the ESC/AHA guidelines of prevention, acute and coronary syndromes and heart failure," continued Münzel.

Reducing the use of fossil fuels to reduce pollution-related deaths

According to the findings of the study, almost two thirds of the deaths caused by air pollution, namely around 5.5 million a year are avoidable, and the majority of polluted air comes from the use of fossil fuels. The researchers estimate that the average life expectancy world-wide would increase by more than a year if the emissions from the use of fossil fuels were eliminated.

The team from the University Medical Center Mainz and Max Planck Institute for Chemistry published a similar paper last year focusing on the consequences of air pollution in Europe. According to the earlier study, nearly 800,000 Europeans die prematurely every year due to illnesses caused by air pollution. Polluted air shortens the lifespan of Europeans by more than two years.


Loss of life expectancy from air pollution compared to other risk factors: a worldwide perspective.

Thomas Münzel, Andy Haines, Mohammed Fnais, Ulrich Pöschl, Andrea Pozzer, Jos Lelieveld.

Cardiovascular Research, 2020;

DOI: 10.1093/cvr/cvaa025

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