By Li He

The health hazards of fine particulates (PM2.5) have been gradually recognized. China launched a war against pollution in early 2014. In 2016, the PM2.5 level was down 12% compared with the level in 2013. The Air Quality Life Index (AQLI), recently released by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago in Beijing, shows that this reduction is equivalent to an extension of the average life expectancy of Chinese residents by 6 months.

Why is the health impact of PM2.5 pollution so great? “The main reason is that residents living in polluted areas have nowhere to go to avoid air pollution,” said Michael Greenstone, the Milton Friedman Professor in Economics and director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC). “You may quit smoking, and diseases can be prevented. But no one can stop breathing, so the impact of air pollution on people’s life is greater than any other factor. Currently, 75% of the world’s population, or 5.5 billion people, live in areas where PM2.5 exceeds WHO (World Health Organization) guidelines.

The “Air Quality Life Index” is the conversion of PM2.5 concentrations into their impact on life expectancy. Developed by a team of researchers at EPIC, the index is based on two peer-reviewed studies that quantify the causal relationship between long-term human exposure to particulate pollution and life expectancy to help the public and decision makers understand the importance of anti-air pollution policies.

The “Air Quality Life Index” released shows that developing and industrializing countries in Asia are most affected by PM2.5 pollution. If the WHO-guided safety standards are met, the average life expectancy of Indians will increase by 4.3 years, while in China it will increase 2.9 years from 76 to 79 years. About one-third of the population of the United States lives in areas that do not meet WHO guidelines. If the target is met, life expectancy in the most polluted areas is expected to increase by one year.

“China’s efforts to deal with air pollution are part of the global anti-pollution initiative,” said Greenstone. The concentration of pollution in several key areas of China has fallen much faster than the national average, bringing more benefits to local residents. For example, Tianjin, one of China’s three most polluted cities in 2013, saw particulate pollution drop by 14 percent in 2016. If sustained, this would mean a 1.2-year gain in average life expectancy for its 13 million residents, compared with 2013. The results were most impressive in Henan province, where the exposure time of residents to PM2.5 pollution is 20% lower than that in 2013, which is equivalent to an increase in average life expectancy of 1.3 years.

“China’s efforts in air pollution control have achieved results in recent years. Satellite data shows that as of 2016, the PM2.5 concentration has decreased by more than 10%. More new data shows that the reduction may be even greater in recent years,” Greenstone said, “If this momentum can be maintained, Chinese residents will live a healthier, longer life.”

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