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Air pollution reduces life expectancy by three years

Air pollution could reduce life expectancy by an average of nearly three years, researchers have found.

A new study, co-authored by the University Medical Centre Mainz and the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, both in Germany, has shown that the global loss of life expectancy caused by air pollution is higher than many other risk factors such as smoking, infectious diseases or violence.

Previous research has revealed that long-term exposure to air pollution increases the risks of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. According to the new study’s findings, almost two-thirds of premature deaths can be attributed to human-made air pollution – around 5.5m each year – and are therefore avoidable.

With the majority of human-made polluted air coming from the use of fossil fuels,  researchers estimate that the global average life expectancy would increase by more than a year if those emissions were eliminated. Lifespans could rise by more than 20 months if all “controllable” air pollution was cut, which doesn’t include particles from natural wildfires or wind-born dust.

The new study is the first to examine the global impact of air pollution on human health, as compared with other risk factors. It draws on a recently-developed model of the impact of fine particle pollution (particulate matter) – known as PM2.5 – on the body, as well as a model for the impact of ozone, levels of exposure to pollutants, and population and mortality figures for 2015.

The team calculated the proportion of early deaths that could be attributed to outdoor air pollution across six categories, including ‘unspecified non-communicable diseases’, which includes conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

Mortality rates were shown to be highest in East Asia and South Asia, followed by Africa and Europe. Australia has the lowest mortality rates, which is associated with its air quality standards being among the strictest in the world. 

“Our comparison… shows that ambient air pollution is a leading cause of premature mortality and loss of life expectancy, in particular through cardiovascular diseases,” said co-author Thomas Münzel.

The study is limited to two air pollutants and does not look at the chemical make-up of particulate matter, while the team also acknowledges that there may be diseases that should be associated with air pollution that are not currently highlighted.

“We understand more and more that fine particles primarily favour vascular damage and thus diseases such as heart attack, stroke, cardiac arrhythmia and heart failure, said Münzel. “It is of the utmost importance that air pollution is adopted as a cardiovascular risk factor and that it is distinctly mentioned in the European Society of Cardiology/American Heart Association guidelines on prevention, acute and coronary syndromes and heart failure.”

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