top of page
< Back

Air pollution has a more devastating effect on life expectancy than war

Oct 5, 2021

Air pollution is a bigger killer than tuberculosis and malaria combined, according to a recent report from the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI).

Particulate pollution has a more devastating impact on life expectancy than smoking or even war, the scientists say.

It is cutting short the lives of billions of people, with the average global citizen losing 2.2 years of their life to today’s air pollution levels. If nothing changes then that will add up to 17 billion years of life lost around the world.

The problem is being made worse by the climate crisis, with high temperatures leading to wildfires that increase air pollution. This creates a dangerous cycle, the researchers say. Fossil fuel burning - in particular coal - is feeding the problem. “Air pollution is the greatest external threat to human health on the planet," says Professor Micheal Greenstone, one of the scientists who created the AQLI, “and that is not widely recognised, or not recognised with the force and vigour that one might expect.” In the UK, air pollution is thought to be responsible for up to 36,000 deaths every year and some studies say it could be higher. Ruth is one person who has seen the impact of this firsthand.

“My son first started having breathing difficulties in the heatwave of 2018,” she says.

“If you remember that one, it was around 34 degrees (Celsius), some days cooler, for about two and a half months in London and the air quality was really bad.”

Ruth says that by November, her son had seven asthma attacks and they were on their third visit to the hospital. It was then that a paediatric respiratory specialist told her air pollution could be part of the problem. He said that they should avoid walking along busy streets, main roads and next to traffic. It isn’t just air pollution threatening our health but a whole host of other impacts of climate change that could be putting our lungs in danger - many of which we are surprisingly unaware of.

As we emerge from the effects of COVID-19, climate change could be the next biggest threat to our respiratory health according to a new report from the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).

The EIU identified five major ways that climate change is damaging our respiratory health:

Higher temperatures can increase ozone levels and how often and how severe respiratory infections can be.
Heatwaves: With every degree of Celsius in temperature increase, it is thought that the risk of premature death for respiratory patients is six times that of the general population.

The amount of pollen in the air: Rising temperatures and carbon dioxide levels are increasing pollen load by expanding the area where plants can grow and extending their season.

How allergic we are to pollen: As well as increasing the amount of pollen in the air, storms can cause pollen grains to burst, allowing them to get deeper into our lungs and cause health issues.

Extreme weather events: Dust storms carry pollen, viruses and fungal spores, particulates from wildfires can travel up to 1,000km and thunderstorms cause pollen levels to rise and lead to asthma epidemics.

bottom of page