For hundreds of millions of people in cities around the world, the air they breathe is so saturated with pollution that it is literally shortening their lives. Residents of Los Angeles lose nearly a year of life expectancy due to dirty air. In Venice, Italy, it is 1.7 years. But, by a wide margin, inhabitants of cities throughout Asia pay the steepest price. If current air-pollution concentrations are sustained, the average person in major Asian cities like Beijing, Lahore and Delhi will live more than five years less than if their air met guidelines established by the World Health Organization.
Those are the findings of the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI), a new tool produced by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, which we lead. The AQLI combines frontier research in health and economics with nearly two decades of satellite-derived measurements of particulate matter pollution for the entire world. As a result, the Index allows people anywhere on earth to access information about the air they breathe and how it affects their health in the metric that matters most: its impact on their life expectancy.
The data are striking: The AQLI identifies air pollution as the single greatest threat to human health globally, with its toll on life expectancy exceeding that of communicable diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis and even behavioral risks like cigarettes, given current smoking rates.
Though some particulate matter is generated by natural sources such as dust, the primary source of urban particulate matter pollution is energy use. The fossil fuels that power 80% of the global energy system, including transportation, industry and electric power, produce particulate matter pollution during combustion, releasing it into the atmosphere. From there, the tiny particles enter our lungs, where they can bypass the body’s natural defenses and spread well beyond our respiratory system.