Around 90% of the world’s population is affected by air pollution, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Exposure to fine particles (PM2.5) remains one of the greatest health threats to humanity, “with the impact on life expectancy comparable to that of smoking, more than three times that of alcohol use and unsafe water, and more than five times that of transport injuries like car crashes”, according to research conducted by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, published in August.
This study estimates that strict adherence to the WHO thresholds for exposure to fine particles – 5 µg/m3 or less as an annual average – would increase global life expectancy by 2.3 years.
But “three-quarters of air pollution’s impact on global life expectancy occurs in just six countries – Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, China, Nigeria and Indonesia – where people lose one to more than six years off their lives because of the air they breathe”, the report pointed out.
It added that parts of the planet with the highest levels of fine particles in the air are mainly found in Asia, the Middle East and Africa. These include Chad, India, Iraq, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Kuwait, Pakistan, Burkina Faso, the United Arab Emirates, Tajikistan and Egypt.
Chad (Africa) beats all records with a fine particle concentration of 89.7 µg/m³, 17 times higher than the WHO PM2.5 annual guideline.
Of all the countries surveyed, only six fell within the limit recommended by the WHO: Australia, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Grenada and New Zealand.
In this ranking, the United States comes in at 99th place, while France comes in at 84th place out of 131 countries, with an average fine particle concentration of 11.5 µg/m³ last year, 2.3 times higher than the WHO annual guidelines.
The situation is equally worrying in the rest of Europe, where only 4.6% of cities and regions fall within the recommended limits. Bosnia-Herzegovina is the most polluted country on the Old Continent, with 33.6 µg/m3. By contrast, Iceland has the cleanest air in Europe (3.4 µg/m3).
Here are more specific geographical highlights from the Energy Policy Institute study:
In no other location on the planet is the deadly impact of pollution more visible than in South Asia, home to the four most polluted countries in the world and nearly a quarter of the global population.
In Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan, residents 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 – accounting for more than half of the total life years lost globally due to pollution.
Although the challenge of reducing air pollution across the world may seem daunting, China has had remarkable success, reducing pollution by 42.3% since 2013, the year before the country began a “war against pollution”.
Thanks to these improvements, the average Chinese citizen can expect to live 2.2 years longer, provided the reductions are sustained. However, the pollution in China is still six times higher than the WHO guideline, taking 2.5 years off life expectancy.
Like South Asia, almost all of Southeast Asia (99.9%) is now considered to have unsafe levels of pollution, with pollution increasing in a single year by as much as 25% in some regions.
Residents living in the most polluted parts of Southeast Asia are expected to lose two to three years of life expectancy on average.
Central and West Africa
While Asian countries rightly receive the most media coverage about extreme levels of air pollution, the African countries of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, and the Republic of Congo are amongst the 10 most polluted countries in the world.
In the most polluted areas of these regions, pollution levels are 12 times the WHO guideline and taking as much as 5.4 years off lives – becoming as much of a health threat as well-known killers in the region like HIV/AIDS and malaria.
While average air quality is at an unsafe but relatively low level across the region, the most polluted areas – located within Guatemala, Bolivia, and Peru – experience air quality similar to pollution hotspots like Pune, India and Harbin, China.
In these regions, the average resident would gain three to 4.4 years of life expectancy if their air quality met the WHO guideline.