Epic study: Air pollution the greatest global threat to human health
Air pollution is more dangerous to the health of the average person than smoking or alcohol, with the threat worsening in its global epicentre South Asia, even as China fast improves, according to a recent study conducted by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (Epic).
Its annual Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) report states that fine particulate air pollution, which comes from vehicle and industrial emissions, wildfires and other sources, remains the “greatest external threat to public health”.
Profound disconnect in funding
Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) is linked to lung disease, heart disease, strokes and cancer. Yet, the level of funding set aside to confront and combat the challenge is only a fraction of the amount assigned for fighting infectious diseases, the Epic study shows.
If the world were to permanently reduce these pollutants to meet the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) guideline limit, the average person would add 2.3 years to his life expectancy, according to the study conducted on data collected until the end of 2021.
In comparison, tobacco use reduces global life expectancy by 2.2 years while child and maternal malnutrition is responsible for a reduction of 1.6 years.
Asia and Africa bear the greatest burden, but have some of the weakest infrastructure to collect and deliver timely, accurate data of its air quality. Both continents also receive only tiny slices of an already small global charity pie. While there is an international financing partnership, called the Global Fund, that disburses US$ 4 billion annually for HIV/Aids, malaria and tuberculosis, there is no equivalent for air pollution. To name just one example, the entire continent of Africa receives less than US$ 300,000 a year to tackle air pollution.
Air pollution concerns in South Asia
Globally, South Asia is the worst-impacted region. Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan are, in that order, the top four most polluted countries in terms of annualised, population-weighted averages of fine particulate matter, which is detected by satellites and defined as particles with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less (PM2.5).
Residents of Bangladesh, where average PM2.5 levels were 74 micrograms per cbm, would gain 6.8 years of life if this were brought to WHO guidelines of 5mcg per cbm. Air pollution is responsible for about 20% of the total premature deaths in Bangladesh, a World Bank report, released on 28-March 2023 shows.
The World Bank report highlights that Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan, share a common air shed that spans the Indo Gangetic Plain. Particulate matter in each air shed comes from various sources and locations, for example, in many cities, such as Dhaka, Kathmandu, and Colombo, only one-third of the air pollution originates within the city. Recognizing the transboundary nature of air pollution, Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan for the first time joined together to draw up the Kathmandu Roadmap for improving air quality in the Indo-Gangetic Plain and Himalayan Foothills.
“Air pollution is not limited to a city, state, or national boundaries- it is transboundary in nature,” said Cecile Fruman, World Bank Director for Regional Integration for South Asia. “South Asian countries in the same air shed can reduce the alarming level of air pollution only if they take a coordinated approach. By working together countries can get results better, faster and cheaper.”
India’s capital Delhi, meanwhile, is the “most polluted megacity in the world” with annual average particulate pollution of 126.5 mcg per cbm.
According to a news release by the Times of India on 31-August 2023, citing an updated AQLI released by Epic, fine particulate air pollution is estimated to shorten an average Indian’s life expectancy by 5.3 years and in Delhi, often labelled the most polluted city in the world, by as much as 11.9 years when compared to the WHO standards of 5 µg/m3. Against the country’s national ambient air quality standards of 40 µg/m3, an average Indian could lose 1.8 years of life expectancy and a Delhi resident up to 8.5 years, the Epic report says.
Moving onto another country of concern, Epic’s AQLI report shows that in Indonesia PM2.5 shortens the average Indonesian resident’s life expectancy by 1.4 years. Some areas of Indonesia fare much worse than average, with air pollution shortening lives by 2.9 years in Deli Serdang, the most polluted regency in Indonesia. In Jakarta, 10.7 million residents are on track to lose 2.4 years of life expectancy on average relative to the WHO guideline.
On 15 August this year, PM2.5 readings in Jakarta reached 116.7 micrograms per cbm, more than 23 times higher than what the WHO considers safe. This made Jakarta’s air quality the worst in the world at this time, according to separate data from IQAir, a Swiss-based air quality technology company. The ranking was maintained for several days in the month.
Virtually all of Indonesia’s 272 million people live in areas where the annual average particulate pollution level exceeds the WHO guideline. More than half of the population lives in areas that exceed the country’s own national standard of 15 µg/m³.
President Joko Widodo himself had reported suffering from a month-long cough earlier this year, joining the more than 630,000 cases of respiratory illness accounted for in Jakarta in the first half of this year.
To date, local, city, and national governments attribute air quality issues to vehicle emissions while seemingly neglecting the significance of the role that the 16 coal-fired power plants situated within a 100-kilometer radius of the city plays. It's worth noting that the number of coal-fired power plants has doubled since 2028. In 2021, a court held the government responsible for improving air quality, but the administration of President Joko Widodo opted to appeal the ruling instead of immediate compliance.
Recently, the Indonesian government and the state-owned oil company Pertamina announced plans to introduce new gasoline grades, named Pertamax Green 92 and 95. These fuels will contain 5% or 7% fuel-ethanol, which is intended to be sourced from local ethanol production sites, although these sites have yet to be constructed. While the transition to higher octane grades is welcomed by advocates for cleaner air, the effectiveness of conventional ethanol in improving overall air quality remains a subject of debate, as indicated by several research studies, including those conducted by the US’ Science Advisory Board and other organisations.
Significant improvements achieved elsewhere
The Epic report refers to China as a very positive case, showing what can be achieved with a relentless push for higher-quality fuel specifications, among others.
“China has had remarkable progress in terms of its war on air pollution” which began in 2014, a spokesperson of the institute said. Efforts to seriously cull perpetrators of air pollution had begun in the roughly 1.5 billion people-strong nation in 2014.
Its air pollution dropped 42.3% between 2013 and 2021. If the improvements are sustained, the average Chinese citizen will be able to live 2.2 years longer.
In the United States, legislative actions like the Clean Air Act helped reduce air pollution by 64.9% per cent since 1970, helping Americans gain 1.4 years of life expectancy, while climate change is still causing localized pollution spikes. Europe shows a similar picture to the US, but there are still stark differences between western and eastern Europe, with Bosnia being Europe’s most polluted country.
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