Air pollution, the world’s biggest threat to human health

Air pollution, the world's biggest threat to human health

Air pollution poses a greater risk to global health than smoking or alcohol consumption, and this danger is exacerbated in certain regions of the world such as Asia and Africa, details a study published on Tuesday.

According to this report by the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute (EPIC) on global air quality, fine particulate pollution – emitted by motor vehicles, industry and fires – accounts for “the greatest external threat to public healthBut despite this observation, the funds allocated to the fight against air pollution represent only a tiny fraction of those, for example, dedicated to infectious diseases, points out the report.

Fine particle pollution increases the risk of developing lung disease, heart disease, stroke or cancer. Permanent compliance with the fine particle exposure threshold set by the WHO would increase global life expectancy by 2.3 years, estimates the EPIC, based on data collected in 2021. In comparison, the Tobacco consumption reduces global life expectancy by an average of 2.2 years, and child and maternal malnutrition by 1.6 years.

Air pollution, an enemy whose measure has not been taken

In South Asia, the region of the world most affected by air pollution, the effects on public health are very pronounced. According to EPIC models, the inhabitants of Bangladesh – where the average level of exposure to fine particles is estimated at 74 μg/m3 – could gain 6.8 years of life expectancy if the pollution threshold were lowered to 5 μg/m3, the level recommended by the WHO.

The capital of India, New Delhi, is the “most polluted megalopolis in the world”, with an average annual rate of 126.5 μg/m3. Conversely, China has “made remarkable progress in its fight against air pollution” initiated in 2014, underlines with AFP Christa Hasenkopf, director of the programs on the quality of the air of the EPIC.

The average air pollution in the country has thus decreased by 42.3% between 2013 and 2021, but remains six times higher than the threshold recommended by the WHO. If this progress continues over time, the Chinese population should gain an average of 2.2 years of life expectancy, estimates the EPIC. But overall, the regions of the world most exposed to air pollution are those that receive the least means to combat this risk, the report notes.

“There is a deep disconnect between where the air is most polluted and where the most resources are collectively and globally deployed to solve this problem”explains Christa Hasenkopf.

If international systems exist to fight against HIV, malaria or tuberculosis, like the Global Fund which deploys 4 billion dollars a year in the fight against these diseases, no equivalent exists for atmospheric pollution. “And yet, air pollution reduces the average life expectancy of a person in the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) and Cameroon more than HIV, malaria and others”says the report.

Megafires in Canada: significant pollution

In the United States, the federal Clean Air Act program has helped reduce air pollution by 64.9% since 1970, allowing the average life expectancy of Americans to increase by 1.4 years. In Europe, the improvement in air quality over the last decades has followed the dynamics of that observed in the United States, but deep disparities persist between the east and the west of the continent.

All these efforts are threatened, among other things, by the multiplication of forest fires around the world – caused by the increase in temperatures and the multiplication of episodes of drought, linked to climate change – and which cause peaks in air pollution. . In 2021, the historic fire season in California, for example, resulted in air pollution in the Californian county of Plumas of the order of five times the threshold limit recommended by the WHO. The megafires that ravaged Canada in the summer of 2023 caused pollution peaks in Quebec and Ontario, and in several regions of the eastern United States.