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Global air pollution shortens lifespan by average of three years

Air pollution shortens the average human lifespan by three years, according to new models. Photo by PublicDomainPictures/Pixabay
Air pollution shortens the average human lifespan by three years, according to new models. Photo by PublicDomainPictures/Pixabay

March 3 (UPI) -- Air pollution is a greater drag on the average human lifespan than war, malaria, HIV/AIDS, smoking and more.

In a new study, published Tuesday in the journal Cardiovascular Research, an international team of scientists used a novel modelling technique to estimate the effects of different types of air pollution on death rates around the world.

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Simulations showed global air pollution was responsible for 8.8 million premature deaths in 2015, shortening human life expectancy an average of three years. By comparison, smoking tobacco shortened life expectancy by 2.2 years. Diseases spread by parasites or insects like mosquitoes, ticks and fleas shortened life expectancy by a little more than half a year.

Using the results of previous scientific studies as their guide, the creators of the new model tabulated the impacts of air pollution on six different types of disease: lower respiratory tract infection, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, heart disease, stroke-causing cerebrovascular disease and other non-communicable diseases like high blood pressure and diabetes.

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The data showed the effects of air pollution on cardiovascular diseases -- heart disease and cerebrovascular disease -- is responsible for 43 percent of the reduction in global life expectancy.

"Air pollution causes damage to the blood vessels through increased oxidative stress, which then leads to increases in blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, heart attacks and heart failure," lead study author Jos Lelieveld, climate scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany, said in a news release.

The new models also revealed 75 percent of the premature deaths caused by air pollution occurred in people over the age of 60.

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"It is remarkable that both the number of deaths and the loss in life expectancy from air pollution rival the effect of tobacco smoking and are much higher than other causes of death," said Lelieveld. "Air pollution exceeds malaria as a global cause of premature death by a factor of 19, it exceeds violence by a factor of 16, HIV/AIDS by a factor of 9, alcohol by a factor of 45, and drug abuse by a factor of 60."

Authors of the new study argued air pollution -- and its significant negative impacts on human health -- warrants the term "pandemic."

"Since the impact of air pollution on public health overall is much larger than expected, and is a worldwide phenomenon, we believe our results show there is an 'air pollution pandemic,'" said Thomas Münzel, cardiovascular researcher at the University Medical Center of the Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany. "Policy-makers and the medical community should be paying much more attention to this. Both air pollution and smoking are preventable, but over the past decades much less attention has been paid to air pollution than to smoking, especially among cardiologists."

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The research distinguished between air pollution caused by human activities and air pollution caused by natural phenomena, like wildfire emissions and dust blown into the air by desert winds.

Around the world, human-caused pollution, mostly from the burning of fossil fuels, accounted for two-thirds of premature deaths. In the wealthiest countries, human-caused pollution accounted for 80 percent of premature deaths.

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