Sustained exposure to wildfire smoke is taking a toll on human health in California, where residents of one county are losing an average of two years off their lives due to the air they breathe, a new report has found.
Twenty of the nation’s top 30 most polluted counties in 2021 were located in California, according to new data released by the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) of the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute.
In the most polluted county, Plumas, the AQLI estimated that residents would gain 2.1 years of life expectancy if the region adhered to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) particulate pollution guidelines.
Across the United States as a whole, residents are exposed to 64.9 percent less particulate pollution than they encountered in 1970, prior to the passage of the Clean Air Act, according to the AQLI.
They are also living 1.4 years longer because of this improvement in overall air quality.
Residents of Ohio’s Jefferson County, which achieved an 87.4 percent reduction in pollution since 1970, gained 5.9 years on average, while Kentucky’s Campbell County saw average life expectancies extended by 4.8 years.
Even in California, not everything has been bad news. Particulate pollution has declined in the “former smog capital of Los Angeles” by 57 percent since 1970, extending life expectancy for the average Angeleno by 1.5 years, the AQLI determined.
Nonetheless, the report authors warned that 96 percent of the country still fails to meet the WHO’s fine particulate pollution (PM 2.5) guidelines of 5 micrograms per cubic meter.
This year, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed lowering the national standard from 12 to 9-10 micrograms per cubic meter — a step that the AQLI estimated would add 3.2 million total life years if the upper limit of that proposal was met.
While California on average is the most polluted state, coming in at a close second and third are Illinois and Indiana, according to the AQLI.
In these two states, the average resident is losing between 4.8 and 6 months of life expectancy, as a result of breathing in air that fails to comply with the WHO guidelines.
Zooming out to look at the entire planet, air pollution is reducing the average person’s life expectancy also by 2 years, the AQLI determined.
If the world reduced PM 2.5 pollution enough to meet the WHO guidelines, the average person could expect to add 2.3 years to their life expectancy — for a combined total of 17.8 billion life-years saved, according to the report.
On a global level, the AQLI researchers described particulate pollution as “the world’s greatest external risk to human health.”
Three-quarters of the impacts of air pollution on global life expectancy is concentrated in just six countries: Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, China, Nigeria and Indonesia, according to AQLI creator Michael Greenstone, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago.
In those six countries, residents “lose one to more than six years off their lives because of the air they breathe,” Greenstone said in a statement.
Europe, the U.S. and Canada receive a total of about $34 million in philanthropic funds for air pollution mitigation, while the entire continent of Africa receives less than $300,000 and just $1.4 million goes to Asia, outside of India and China, per the report.
“Timely, reliable, open air quality data in particular can be the backbone of civil society and government clean air efforts,” Christa Hasenkopf, director of AQLI, said in a statement.
“Fortunately, we see an immense opportunity to play a role in reversing this by better targeting — and increasing — our funding dollars to collaboratively build the infrastructure that is missing today,” Hasenkopf added.
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