APR 09, 2019 8:42 AM PDT

Toxic Air is Shortening Children's Lifespans

WRITTEN BY: Tiffany Dazet

According to the State of Global Air 2019 report, air pollution is currently shortening life expectancy by an average of 20 months worldwide. This means that children born today will live 20 months less than they would in a world without polluted air.

The State of Global Air is an annual report produced by the Health Effects Institute and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s Global Burden of Disease Project. The goal of the report is to compile global air quality and health information to present information on air pollution and the health impacts it causes. The term “air pollution” is the total measurement of particulate matter in ambient air, ozone, and household air pollution. 

This is the first year that life expectancy is included in the report, and the impacts surprised Robert O’Keefe, the vice-president of the Health Effects Institute. He told The Guardian “that the life of children is being shortened so much came as really quite a shock…there is no magic bullet, but governments should be taking action.”

Air pollution is now nearly comparable to smoking as a health threat, and contributed to one in every ten deaths in 2017. Short-term health effects include throat, ear, and nose irritation. It may also aggravate allergies, asthma or other respiratory conditions. Long-term exposure to air pollution increases the risk of dying from diabetes, stroke, COPD, lung cancer, ischemic heart disease, and lower-respiratory infections. 

Image via Health Effects Institute

Air pollution’s impact on life expectancy has regional differences. For children in developed regions, life expectancy is expected to be shortened by less than five months. In the least-developed countries, air pollution exposure is the highest causing more substantial declines in life expectancy. 

Some regions may experience more or less ambient air pollution and household pollution. Cooking with solid fuels is an example of exposure to household air pollution. In areas where ambient air fine particulate matter levels are high as well as household air pollution levels, there is greater life expectancy loss. In South Asia, the combined air pollutants reduce life expectancy by 30 months. In sub-Saharan Africa—where 80% cook with solid fuels—ambient air pollution is lower, and household air pollution is responsible for most of the life expectancy loss.

Improving air quality will benefit life expectancies worldwide. China, which is one of the most populous countries with notable air pollution, has seen a substantial reduction in exposure to fine particulate matter in ambient air. O’Keefe told The Guardian regarding China that “they have kept on pursuing this, they have dispatched government officials to these places to enforce, and air pollution has begun to turn a corner.” 

Sources: State of Global Air, The Guardian

About the Author
  • Tiffany grew up in Southern California, where she attended San Diego State University. She graduated with a degree in Biology with a marine emphasis, thanks to her love of the ocean and wildlife. With 13 years of science writing under her belt, she now works as a freelance writer in the Pacific Northwest.
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