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Truth Behind the Headlines: Air pollution is cutting life expectancy by two years

Despite reductions in air pollution globally as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic, this study reveals that air pollution continues to cut life expectancy worldwide.


The researchers measured air quality trends worldwide with satellite imagery to understand pollution levels for every country. They discovered that progress made in some nations is being countered by other countries. Explaining that the worst countries could see their life expectancy reduced by an average of 5 years and a global reduction in life expectancy of 1.9 years.

Using our recommended five tips, Global Action Plan reviewed the study:


Questions to ask to get to the truth Our response
1. Does the article refer to a report to back up its claims?

The article refers to the Air Quality Life Index, the claim is cited in their 2020 report.

2. Who is behind the study it refers to?

The Air Quality Life Index is produced by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC). The authors of the 2020 report are Michael Greenstone and Claire Fan.


Michael Greenstone is the Milton Friedman Professor in Economics, the College, and the Harris School, as well as the Director of the Becker Friedman Institute and the interdisciplinary Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. He was also the Chief Economist for President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.


Claire Fan is a Pre-Doctoral Fellow with the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago.

3. How fantastical and radical is the claim that is being made?

The life expectancy calculations made by the AQLI are based on two peer-reviewed studies, Chen et al. (2013) and Ebenstein et al. (2017). By comparing two subgroups of the population that experienced prolonged exposure to different levels of particulate air pollution, the studies are able to plausibly isolate the effect of particulate air pollution from other factors that affect health. The more recent of the two studies found that sustained exposure to an additional 10 μg/m3 of PM₁₀ reduces life expectancy by 0.64 years. Calculated in terms of PM2.5, that means that additional 10 μg/m3 of PM2.5 reduces life expectancy by 0.98 years. The AQLI applies this finding to global, satellite-derived PM2.5 measurements to determine the current life expectancy effects of air pollution in countries around the world.


The average person is exposed to particulate pollution concentrations of 29 µg/m³, consequently the study calculates that if this level of particulate pollution persists, the health consequences of air pollution would shave 1.9 years off global life expectancy compared to a world in which all countries met the WHO guideline.


4. What geographical region does the claim refer to? Global
5. What is the sample size of the study?

Chen et al. (2013) collected information on annual daily average concentrations of total suspended particulates for 90 cities from 1981 to 2000. It used mortality data for 145 sites, totalling 500,000 deaths.


Ebenstein et al (2017) research is based on disease surveillance points for 73 million people at 161 separate locations for each year between 2004 and 2012 and a 154-location point air pollution dataset.

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