Poor air quality still more of a threat to life than coronavirus

My head was turned by a headline I spotted last week during my routine media scans proclaiming that poor air quality is a greater risk to human health than the coronavirus.

My research background and day job tell me that’s nothing new – I’ve long known air pollution is a mass killer the word over.

But seeing it included as a direct comparison with the disease at the forefront of everyone’s minds, an illness currently crippling global economies as medics and scientists battle to understand and control, made me stop and think.

Putting something in the public domain constantly, with regular (in the case of COVID-19 often hourly) updates, and generally easy to follow breakdowns of the impact different social actions will have on its spread and, therefore, likely death rates, puts it fairly and squarely at the heart of the human psyche. Nobody wants to catch COVID-19 because it could have fatal, or at least serious long-lasting, consequences. Simple. So the vast majority of us follow Government guidelines around measures designed to prevent its infection rate increasing.

Why then is this stat around air pollution suddenly making the news? Yes, it’s that comparison with the current coronavirus pandemic and the perspective it gives.

Horrific as COVID-19 is, there are still issues killing more people around the world and poor air quality is right up there.

So, while the world’s best scientific brains work round the clock to combat the deadly coronavirus, a new report identifies the ‘greatest risk to human health’ is poor air quality.

New data from the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) reveals air pollution cuts global life expectancy by nearly two years.

Nearly a quarter of the world’s population lives in four south Asian countries that are among the most polluted – Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan.

AQLI found that these populations would see their lifespan cut by five years on average, after being exposed to pollution levels 44 percent higher than 20 years ago. Michael Greenstone, the Milton Friedman Distinguished Service Professor and creator of the AQLI, said: ‘Though the threat of coronavirus is grave and deserves every bit of the attention it is receiving—perhaps more in some places—embracing the seriousness of air pollution with a similar vigor would allow billions of people around the world to lead longer and healthier lives.

‘The reality is, no shot in the arm will alleviate air pollution. The solution lies in robust public policy.

‘The AQLI tells citizens and policymakers how particulate pollution is affecting them and their communities and can be used to measure the benefits of policies to reduce pollution.’

The Air Quality Index converts particulate air pollution, caused mainly by the burning of fossil fuels, into its impact on human health and life expectancy.

Particles that spread from the pollution make their way into the body, which have ‘a more devastating impact on life expectancy than communicable diseases like tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, behavioral killers like cigarette smoking, and even war,’ AQLI sstates in the report.

In countries such as India and Bangladesh, air pollution is so severe that it now cuts average lifespans in some areas by almost a decade.

And the report indicated that the quality of the air many humans breathe constituted a far higher health risk than the current coronavirus pandemic.

While regions such as the United States, Europe and Japan have put in place measures to improve air quality, pollution still reduces worldwide life expectancy by an average of two years, according to AQLI.

The air quality index calculations focus on major air pollutants including: particulate matter, ground-level ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and carbon monoxide.

Particulate matter and ozone pollutants pose the highest risks to human health and the environment.

None of us knows how long it will take to find a vaccine or cure for coronavirus – we can only hope its devastating impact on global health is short-lived.

Unfortunately, I fear the effects of poor air quality will far outlive the current crisis – yet solutions to the problem are already in the gift of Governments and big business.

If only the media would come on side with a few more frequent headlines like the one that caught my eye, maybe the international community would start taking the issue of pollution a bit more seriously and hold these policymakers and energy providers to account.

The cause of air pollution is not the great mystery that COVID-19 is to the medical world. It’s time that knowledge was put to good use and fewer needless deaths were recorded.