Cigarette smoking and other uses of tobacco shave an average of 2.2 years off lifespans globally. But merely breathing—if the air is polluted—is more damaging to human health.

That is the conclusion of a report published Tuesday by the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute, which identified air pollution as the world’s top threat to public health, responsible for reducing average life expectancy by 2.3 years worldwide.

China, once the poster child for smog-filled skies, has been a surprise success story. Between 2013 and 2021, the world’s second-largest economy improved overall air quality by more than 40% while the average lifespan of residents increased by more than two years, according to the report.

By contrast, four countries in South Asia—India, Bangladesh Nepal and Pakistan—accounted for more than half of the total years of life lost globally due to pollution in the atmosphere over the same eight years. India alone was responsible for nearly 60% of the growth in air pollution across the globe during that time.

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Poor visibility in Dhaka as pollution envelops Bangladesh’s capital. PHOTO: SYED MAHABUBUL KADER/ZUMA PRESS

If India were to meet World Health Organization guidelines for particulate pollution, the life expectancy for residents of capital city New Delhi would increase by 12 years.

India’s Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

An increase in wildfires in places such as California and Canada has renewed attention on the dangers of polluted air. Around 350 cities globally suffer the same level of dangerous haze that enveloped New York City in June at least once a year, according to calculations from environmental think tank Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, which aggregates data from dozens of official government sources.

How seriously a country takes the problem typically depends in part on public awareness, according to Michael Greenstone, an economics professor at the University of Chicago who contributed to the report. Knowledge of the health risks of poor air quality is low in many African and Asian countries, which suffer the worst outcomes.

“Air-pollution improvements are often driven by the demand of the people,” he said. Having access to reliable monitoring tools to enforce clean-air requirements is also important, he said.

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Areas of Focus: Environment
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Air Pollution
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