A new study by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and other European institutions, published in the end of February 2020, indicates that humans, on average, are losing three years of life expectancy due to outdoor air pollution. With the world as it stands now, we have little chance of gaining it back.

Their research, built on a previous study into early deaths caused by air pollution, reveals that cutting all fossil fuel emissions off entirely would give us back one of those three years. Eliminating absolutely all human-controlled air pollution, they also say, would increase global life expectancy by nearly two years.

“The loss of life expectancy from air pollution is much higher than many other risk factors, and even higher than smoking,” said study co-author Professor Jos Lelieveld of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry. “That was quite unexpected, I must say.”

The team’s first study, published in March of 2019, confirmed that at least 8.8 million early deaths a year were caused directly or indirectly by air pollution world-wide. Both studies are based on their models of how fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, affects the body, measured against statistics of pollutants, mortality, population, and ozone across the world. Their model excluded uncontrollable air pollutants, such as airborne dust and natural fires.

They looked at a number of known results of air pollutants, from obvious results like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, lung cancer, and lower respiratory infections to more obscure ones like coronary heart disease caused by particle build-up in the arteries.

If the study has a shortcoming, it is that it looked purely at particulate load in air pollution, and not at chemical pollutants. Professor Thomas Münzel of Germany, another author of the studies, says that taking this into account will certainly mean the actual numbers are even higher than their findings.

“We need lower emission levels – 91 percent of the [world’s] population breathes polluted air as defined by the [World Health Organization],” said Münzel, asserting that the main point of the study is this: governments need to take action.

City planning and management with reductions of air pollution in mind and improvements in health care could improve life expectancy. However, Münzel added, it is also important to research drugs that could mitigate the health impacts of air pollution.

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