TUESDAY, March 3, 2020 (HealthDay News) — Worldwide, air pollution may be shortening people’s life expectancy by an average of three years, according to new estimates.
Researchers calculate that air pollution actually has a bigger impact on life expectancy than tobacco smoking, HIV/AIDS or violence.
While that might sound surprising, it reflects the ubiquity of air pollution, said study co-author Jos Lelieveld of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany.
Smoking is a greater threat to any one person’s life, he said. But since everyone is exposed to some degree of outdoor air pollution — consistently, over a lifetime — dirty air has a bigger impact on life expectancy across the population, Lelieveld said.
How does air pollution take its toll? Deaths from heart disease and stroke are the biggest culprit, the researchers said, accounting for 43% of the loss in life expectancy worldwide.
The study, published March 3 in Cardiovascular Research, is far from the first to highlight the public health consequences of air pollution. Smog is known to worsen lung disease and to increase the risks of heart attack and stroke in vulnerable people. And previous research has linked air pollution exposure to premature death.
“There’s very little question that air pollution is responsible for deaths and disease,” said Dr. John Balmes, a volunteer medical spokesman for the American Lung Association.
In fact, he noted, the World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated that air pollution causes around 7 million deaths each year.
The new study looks at the issue through a “different lens,” Balmes said. It estimates lost life expectancy and compares the impact of air pollution with other global killers.
To do that, researchers used a couple of statistical “models.” One simulated atmospheric chemical processes and the way they interact with land, water and chemicals churned out from natural and human-made sources, such as road traffic and factories.
The other estimated the impact of air pollution on non-accidental deaths — based on 41 studies from 16 countries.
Worldwide, the researchers said, air pollution may take an average of three years from people’s life expectancy. The impact is smallest in Australia, South America and North America — where dirty air accounted for around one year of life lost, give or take a few months.