Air Pollution Is One of the World’s Greatest Threats to Human Health

Air Pollution Is One of the World’s Greatest Threats to Human Health

Image: Air pollution in Mount Emei, China (Evgeny Nelmin via unsplash)

Author: Sina Heckenberger

Environment and Human Rights Researcher

Global Human Rights Defence

The Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) reveals that the average person loses 2.2 years of their life expectancy due to air pollution. This means that air pollution is more harmful than smoking, which shaves off on average 1.8 years of life expectancy.

Air pollution is mainly caused by fossil fuel emissions from power plants, vehicles and industry. Air pollution is measured in particulate matter. The smaller the particulate matter is, the deeper it can penetrate into the body, even as far as the bloodstream, and the deadlier its effects on the body. Particulate matter has severe health consequences for the heart, lungs and other systems.

Overall, the highest level of pollution can be found in industrializing developing countries. South Asia includes four of the five most polluted countries: Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan. In this region, life expectancy is reduced by over 5 years.

Because of their detrimental effects on life expectancy, the AQLI urges governments to reduce emissions. The problem with air pollution is that people cannot avoid it and have to breathe the air surrounding them. Fortunately, air quality policy is an effective tool in limiting pollution and protecting people’s health. In China, for instance, the “War against Pollution” policy led to a 29% reduction of particulate pollution exposure between 2013 and 2019, equating to an added 1.5 years in life expectancy on average.


Lee, K & Greenstone, M. (2021). Air quality Life Index, Annual Update September 2021