The life expectancy of children born today will be shortened by 20 months on average by breathing the toxic air that is widespread across the globe, with the greatest toll in south Asia, according to a major study.
Air pollution contributed to nearly one in every 10 deaths in 2017, making it a bigger killer than malaria and road accidents and comparable to smoking, according to the State of Global Air (SOGA) 2019 study published on Wednesday.
“That the life of children is being shortened so much came as really quite a shock,” said Robert O’Keefe, the vice-president of the Health Effects Institute, which produced the report. “There is no magic bullet but governments should be taking action.”
In south Asia, children can expect to have their lives cut short by 30 months, and in sub-Saharan Africa by 24 months, because of a combination of outdoor air pollution caused by traffic and industry, and dirty air indoors, largely from cooking fires. In east Asia, air pollution will shorten children’s lives by an estimated 23 months. However, the life expectancy burden is forecast to be less than five months for children in the developed world.
Alastair Harper, the head of campaigns and advocacy at Unicef UK, which has warned repeatedly of the threat to children’s health, said: “This adds to a bleak picture of how polluted air impacts the health of society’s most vulnerable groups, particularly children. Evidence continues to mount showing a relationship between exposure to toxic air and low birthweight, reduced lung development and childhood asthma.”
Air pollution accounts for 41% of global deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, 20% from type 2 diabetes, 19% from lung cancer, 16% from ischaemic heart disease, and 11% of deaths from stroke, according to the report, described as the most systematic annual study of the health effects of global air pollution.
Last year’s SOGA study found dirty air was nearly ubiquitous among the global population, with more than 90% of people worldwide breathing in dangerous air, the result of industrial expansion, increasing traffic and exposure to indoor pollution from solid-fuel cooking fires.
Newly discovered letters written by Isambard Kingdom Brunel more than 175 years ago show the pioneering engineer was aware of some of the environmental impact as he helped to industrialise Britain.
“It would be going too far to suggest Brunel was an environmentalist – he was a Victorian engineer, after all – and his concerns are foremost about the implications for trade. But this trove of Brunel’s newly discovered correspondence does provide a glimpse of genuine concern about pollution and is perhaps another way Britain’s greatest engineer was way ahead of his time.”