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Menopausal Mother Nature

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Air Pollution Kills 10 Million People a Year. Why Do We Accept That as Normal?

Pollution deaths rarely if ever show up in coroner’s reports, since, as with many deaths, the etiology is multicausal. In fact, though 40,000 are estimated to die each year from it in the U.K., it was only in 2020 that air pollution was listed for the first time on a death certificate, that of the 9-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, who has since inspired a landmark bill, called Ella’s Law, to guarantee a British right to clean air. But the science of premature death does not operate by anecdote or coroner’s judgment. More simply, since everyone dies, the question is: When?

A.Q.L.I. maintains a remarkable and easy-to-use tool that allows you to trace that answer down to the county level, all around the world and working back through 24 years of data. Worldwide, life expectancy is being reduced by 2.2 years overall, the equivalent of 17 billion life years lost annually to smog.

In the United States — where separate research has suggested that 350,000 may die annually from pollution produced by the burning of fossil fuels — life expectancy is reduced by 0.2 years overall, according to A.Q.L.I. Perhaps that doesn’t sound like much; by global standards, it isn’t. But for health perhaps especially, relative measures are not the only ones that matter, and averages like these hide large differences between groups and regions. In California the impact is three times larger, and since 1998 the much vaunted air quality improvements throughout the state have not reduced the impact of pollution on mortality at all — it has actually risen, from 0.5 years then to 0.6 today. Today, in a line of counties stretching north from Los Angeles and another bundle north of San Francisco, the average resident would live more than a year longer if local pollution were reduced below the W.H.O. threshold.

Most of the country falls just above that threshold. But according to the State of Global Air, two-thirds of the world’s population lives in places where particulate matter exceeds 25 micrograms per cubic meter — a threshold five times higher than the W.H.O. standard. More than half live with pollution above 35 micrograms per cubic meter, seven times that standard.

In India, according to A.Q.L.I., meeting that standard would extend life spans by more than five years for more than a billion people. In the north of the country, where pollution is worst, air pollution reduces life spans even more significantly: in Delhi, by 10 years; in Bihar, eight; in Uttar Pradesh, eight. And because these are averages, which also account for those for whom the effect is smaller or even zero, it means that many millions could have their lives extended by much more.

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As it is with any pollutant, lethality is not the only measure of harm — in fact, it is the strictest standard, producing ultimately the smallest figures, since many more suffer from pollution than die from it. Expand the aperture of impacts and the effect grows so large that it touches on, which is to say damages, nearly every quantifiable aspect of human health and flourishing: respiratory disease, heart disease, cancer and strokes; Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and dementia; cognitive performance, memory and vocabulary; premature birth and low birth weight, infant death and heart malformation; A.D.H.D. and autism spectrum disorders; mental illness, depression, suicide and self-harm.

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