By David Wallace-Wells
For every thousand people alive on earth, 973 are regularly inhaling toxins. Only 27 are not. Which means, almost certainly, you are too.
Last fall, the World Health Organization lowered its global air quality standard from 10 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter to five. Those terms and standards can feel abstract, which makes their meaning a bit hard to fathom. But last month the University of Chicago’s Air Quality Life Index project — the gold standard on global air quality research — released a major update, incorporating the new guidelines and producing that 973 out of 1,000 (97.3 percent) figure.
The harm is most intense in poorer, still-industrializing places. But the revision was especially dramatic, A.Q.L.I. found, in the wealthier parts of the world. In the United States, before the W.H.O. update, about 8 percent of the country was judged to be breathing dirty air; after, the figure was 93 percent. Across Europe, the revision pushed the numbers from 47 percent to 95.5 percent.
Pollution deaths rarely if ever show up in coroner’s reports, since, as with many deaths, the etiology is multicausal. In fact, though 40,000 are estimated to die each year from it in the U.K., it was only in 2020 that air pollution was listed for the first time on a death certificate, that of the 9-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, who has since inspired a landmark bill, called Ella’s Law, to guarantee a British right to clean air. But the science of premature death does not operate by anecdote or coroner’s judgment. More simply, since everyone dies, the question is: When?
A.Q.L.I. maintains a remarkable and easy-to-use tool that allows you to trace that answer down to the county level, all around the world and working back through 24 years of data. Worldwide, life expectancy is being reduced by 2.2 years overall, the equivalent of 17 billion life years lost annually to smog.