Air pollution is reducing global life expectancy by three years and killing 8.8million people a year – MORE than malaria, HIV, war and smoking, scientists find

  • Scientists led by Germany fear the world is facing an air pollution ‘pandemic’
  • They analysed deaths attributable to breathing toxic air in every country
  • Life expectancy has been cut by four years in East Asia, and two years in Europe 
  • Two-thirds of premature deaths are attributable to human-made emissions  
  • Air pollution predominantly killed by affecting the heart and blood vessels 

Air pollution is reducing global life expectancy by three years, killing 8.8million people a year, a study shows.

More people are dying early from breathing toxic air than some of the largest killers, including malaria, HIV, war and smoking.

Scientists led by Germany fear the world is facing an air pollution ‘pandemic’ after analysing deaths in every country.  

Life expectancy has been cut short in East Asia, including countries such as Japan and India, by almost four years, and 2.2 years in Europe. 

Long-term exposure to air pollutants was found to predominantly kill by affecting the heart and blood vessels which supply the brain.  

Around two-thirds of deaths are deemed avoidable because they were attributable to human-made pollution, such as from fossil fuels.

Pictured, how many people die of air pollution per year in the world: Total 8.8million, East Asia, 3.1million; South Asia, 2.8million; Africa, one million; Europe, 800,000; West Asia, 500,000; North America, 400,000; South America, 200,000; Australia, 10,000.

The international team of authors, led by Professor Jos Lelieveld of Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, Mainz, examined the relationship between air pollution exposure and people’s ‘loss of life expectancy’.

Computer models were able to calculate that life expectancy across the world has been reduced by 2.9 years, or two years and ten months. 

By comparison, tobacco smoking shortens life expectancy by an average of 2.2 years, and HIV/Aids by 0.7 years.

Diseases like malaria that are carried by parasites or insects such as mosquitoes shortens lives by 0.6 years, and all forms of violence – including deaths in wars – by 0.3 years. 

Using new modelling techniques, the authors estimated that globally, air pollution caused an extra 8.8million premature deaths in 2015.

Tobacco kills some 7.2million people a year, HIV/AIDS one million, malaria 600,000 and violence 530,000.

Air pollution had a greater effect on shortening lives in older people – globally, about 75 per cent of deaths attributed to air pollution occur in people aged over 60 years.

Writing in their new paper, published in the journal Cardiovascular Research, the authors said that ambient air pollution is one of the ‘main global health risks’.  

Professor Lelieveld said: ‘It is remarkable that both the number of deaths and the loss in life expectancy from air pollution rival the effect of tobacco smoking and are much higher than other causes of death.

‘Air pollution exceeds malaria as a global cause of premature death by a factor of 19; it exceeds violence by a factor of 16, HIV/Aids by a factor of nine, alcohol by a factor of 45, and drug abuse by a factor of 60.’ 

Co-author Professor Thomas Münzel said: ‘Since the impact of air pollution on public health overall is much larger than expected, and is a worldwide phenomenon, we believe our results show there is an “air pollution pandemic”.  

‘In this paper we distinguished between avoidable, human-made air pollution and pollution from natural sources such as desert dust and wildfire emissions, which cannot be avoided. 

‘We show that about two-thirds of premature deaths are attributable to human-made air pollution, mainly from fossil fuel use; this goes up to 80 per cent in high-income countries. Five and a half million deaths worldwide a year are potentially avoidable.’

The researchers suggested that without human-made emissions, global life expectancies would increase by nearly two years.

Without fossil fuels alone, life expectancy would increase by one year. 

However, there are large differences between regions due to the diversity in emissions. 

Despite Africa being one of the worst affected by air pollution, losing three years of life expectancy, only 0.7 years lost could be prevented. 

This is because Africa has mostly pollution from dust. By comparison, East Asia could prevent three of the average of four years of lost life expectancy lost by removing its main source of pollution – human-made emissions.

In Europe, there is an average of 2.2 years of lost life expectancy, 1.7 of which could be prevented. In North America there is an average of 1.4 years of lost life expectancy, of which 1.1 could be prevented, mostly by phasing out fossil fuels. 

Commenting on the findings, Dr Samuel Cai, a senior epidemiologist at University of Oxford, said: ‘This study once again shows that air pollution is a leading risk factor for health worldwide. It is not a secret that air pollution is the “new tobacco”.

‘I do not feel there is any overspeculation in the findings of this study as they are supported by the good science. It sounds like the word “pandemic” qualifies.’ 

The research looked at the effect of air pollution on six categories of disease.

They found that cardiovascular diseases – including of the heart and blood vessels to the brain – are responsible for the greatest proportion of shortened lives from air pollution, at 43 per cent of the loss in life expectancy worldwide.

Professor Lelieveld said it is important for air pollution to be added to ‘risk factors’ for heart and blood vessel disease along with smoking, diabetes and high blood pressure and cholesterol, in official guidelines. 

He said: ‘Air pollution causes damage to the blood vessels through increased oxidative stress, which then leads to increases in blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, heart attacks and heart failure.’

Jacob West, executive director of healthcare innovation at the British Heart Foundation (BHF), said: ‘This study presents further evidence that air pollution is a public health emergency that can worsen or shorten lives.

‘Up to 11,000 deaths due to a heart attack or stroke are associated with toxic air each year in the UK. Current legal limits do not go far enough to drive the improvements we need to the quality of our air.’ 

Professor Kevin McConway, emeritus professor of applied statistics, The Open University, said the findings were ‘statistically sound’.

However, he added: ‘I don’t think we can be confident that ambient air pollution kills more people than tobacco smoking. There is too much uncertainty about the exact numbers.

‘The comparison between air pollution and tobacco certainly doesn’t mean that it’s just as bad for you to go out into a street with high air pollution as it is to smoke some cigarettes.’

LandmassTotal mortality 2015Population 2015
EAST ASIA31121311588905312
SOUTH ASIA28086942352449213
WEST ASIA543862574969030
NORTH AMERICA360452488303052
SOUTH AMERICA206912498275025
Continent, Country

E-As. China27994431383925308
S-As. India18534551311051220
N-Am. United States of America283228321774039
S-As. Pakistan232622188925013
E-As. Japan202811126573005
W-As. Russian Federation186086143457026
Af. Nigeria180611182202011
S-As. Bangladesh175170160996007
S-As. Indonesia174383257563962
Eu. Germany12394380689001
Af. Egypt11963491508001
S-Am. Brazil102317207848029
S-As. Viet Nam8751993447999
Eu. Italy8147359797994
S-As. Thailand8045667959002
Eu. Ukraine7650244823997
S-As. Myanmar7099553897000
Af. Ethiopia6816999390993
W-As. Iran6738579108998
Eu. France6730064395007
Af. Sudan + S-Sudan6386052574999
Eu. United Kingdom6366564715994
W-As. Turkey6268178666005
E-As. South Korea5890550293001
Eu. Poland5808238611998
N-Am. Mexico54893127017006
S-As. Philippines53264100699007
E-As. North Korea4918225154998
Eu. Spain4842946121998
Af. Congo, Dem. Rep.4654677267003
Af. South Africa4062754489999
Eu. Romania3589519511000
Af. Algeria3210039667000
Af. Morocco2993834377999
W-As. Iraq2896336422998
S-As. Nepal2663928513999
W-As. Uzbekistan2611529893002
Af. Cte d’Ivoire2529722702002
W-As. Yemen2521026832000
Af. Ghana2468627409997
W-As. Saudi Arabia2172031539999
Af. Cameroon2048523343998
Eu. Netherlands2010416925000
N-Am. Canada2008935940008
Af. Niger1936419898999
Af. Chad1907314037000
Af. Uganda1902439031998
Eu. Hungary185679855000
S-As. Sri Lanka1833720715001
Af. Angola1823925022000
Af. Tanzania1722253470004
Af. Mali1710717600002
Eu. Czechia1694110543000
S-Am. Argentina1656843416998
Eu. Greece1643110955000
Eu. Serbia and Montenegro158879477000
W-As. Kazakhstan1541217625000
Af. Burkina Faso1511018105999
Eu. Bulgaria150777150000
Af. Mozambique1505727978002
Af. Kenya1485246049999
Af. Tunisia1475911254000
Eu. Portugal1432810349999
Eu. Belgium1425111299000
Eu. Belarus139639496000
W-As. Syria1351618502001
S-Am. Venezuela1343731108001
S-As. Malaysia1338730331001
Af. Senegal1306015129000
W-As. Azerbaijan124629754000
Af. Guinea1218612609001
Au. Australia1169723969001
Eu. Austria112938545001
S-As. Cambodia1031215578001
Af. Benin1011010879999
S-Am. Peru1006531377000
Af. Sierra Leone89696453000
W-As. Turkmenistan88145374000
S-Am. Cuba863911390000
Eu. Switzerland85708299000
S-Am. Chile856217947999
Af. Somalia845610787000
Af. Madagascar825824235000
Eu. Sweden82339779001
Eu. Slovakia77245426000
W-As. Israel76368064000
S-Am. Colombia750348228998
Eu. Croatia74364240000
Af. Malawi713217215000
Af. Central African Republic65324900000
W-As. Georgia64604000000
Af. Togo63667305000
S-Am. Haiti633010711000
Af. Libyan Arab Jamahiriya62006278000
Eu. Denmark61945669000
S-As. Laos60706802000
W-As. Lebanon60325851001
Af. Burundi556511179001
S-Am. Guatemala542516342999
Eu. Moldova53934069000
Af. Zimbabwe537915603001
Eu. Bosnia and Herzegovina53493810000
W-As. Tajikistan50238482000
Af. Eritrea49625228000
Af. Rwanda493511609999
Af. Mauritania47894068000
Eu. Lithuania47862878000
S-Am. Dominican Republic476510528000
W-As. Jordan46627595000
Af. Zambia464516212001
W-As. Kyrgyzstan42575940000
W-As. Armenia41683018000
Eu. Finland40085503000
S-Am. Bolivia383210725000
W-As. United Arab Emirates36339157001
Af. Liberia33744503000
Eu. Norway32305211000
S-As. Singapore31385604000
S-Am. El Salvador30806127000
Eu. Latvia30611971000
Eu. Ireland30494688000
W-As. Oman30474491000
S-Am. Ecuador302216144001
Eu. Albania28602897000
Eu. Macedonia27132078000
Eu. Slovenia26592068000
W-As. Kuwait24653892000
S-Am. Uruguay22473432000
S-Am. Nicaragua22086082000
Af. Guinea-Bissau21391844000
Au. New Zealand21224529000
S-Am. Honduras21128075000
Af. Congo20424620000
Af. Gambia19391991000
E-As. Mongolia17902959000
S-Am. Paraguay17626639000
S-As. Papua New Guinea16337619001
N-Am. Jamaica15802793000
S-Am. Costa Rica15024808000
Eu. Estonia14201313000
S-Am. Trinidad and Tobago12491360000
Af. Lesotho11672135000
W-As. Cyprus11651165000
Af. Gabon11581725000
S-Am. Panama10953929000
Af. Djibouti870888000
Af. Swaziland8641287000
Af. Mauritius8191273000
Af. Namibia7692459000
Af. Equatorial Guinea699845000
W-As. Qatar6802235000
Af. Botswana6562262000
S-As. Bhutan581775000
Eu. Malta576419000
Af. Cape Verde505521000
S-As. Timor-Leste5051185000
Eu. Luxembourg476567000
S-Am. Guyana441767000
N-Am. Barbados357284000
S-Am. Suriname344543000
Au. Fiji321892000
Af. Comoros266788000
N-Am. Bahamas207388000
Eu. Iceland142329000
S-As. Maldives135364000
S-Am. Belize129359000
S-Am. Saint Lucia129185000
Au. Solomon Islands100584000
N-Am. Grenada98107000
S-As. Brunei92423000
S-Am. Saint Vincent and Grenad90109000
Af. Sao Tome and Principe80190000
Au. Vanuatu65265000
Af. Seychelles6196000
S-Am. Antigua and Barbuda6092000
Au. Tonga35106000
Au. Samoa34193000
Au. Kiribati30112000
Au. Micronesia20104000

Source: Dailymail

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