In Brief

Toxic air ‘will shorten children's lives by 20 months’

Study finds that air pollution contributes to nearly one in every 10 deaths

The life expectancy of children born today will be cut by 20 months on average by breathing the toxic air that is widespread across the globe, according to a major study.

The State of Global Air 2019 report found that the greatest toll will be in south Asia, where children can expect to have their lives cut short by 30 months.

Researchers found that air pollution contributed to nearly one in every 10 deaths in 2017, making it a bigger killer than malaria and road accidents and on par with smoking. 

Older adults are also at risk across the globe. Nearly 90% of deaths attributable to air pollution were among the over-50s. The researchers said that ageing populations in many parts of the world are likely to increase the death toll for years to come.

“That the life of children is being shortened so much came as really quite a shock,” said Robert O’Keefe, of the Health Effects Institute, which produced the report. 

He conceded that there is no single act that leaders can take to reverse the trend, saying: “There is no magic bullet but governments should be taking action.”

However, he pointed to China’s levels of air pollution, which have gone against the trend of the developing world by starting to fall in recent years.

The authorities in China have set air quality targets and introduced measures to reduce the reliance on coal and make industry cleaner. They have also restricted the number of vehicles in some cities and poured funds into clean energy. 

“They have kept on pursuing this, they have dispatched government officials to these places to enforce, and air pollution has begun to turn a corner in China,” he said.

He estimates that air pollution now 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.

The study has been hailed as the most systematic annual study of the health effects of global air pollution.

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