Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Air Pollution Steals Lives

Air quality pollution at dangerous levels sicken our kids. (Adobe stock/246557543/wckiw)

George Harvey

On September 1, Air Quality Life Index® (AQLI) published its Annual Update for 2021(). It compared the rates of loss of life from air pollution to other causes of early death. The results may surprise some people. According to the report, air pollution kills more people than war, auto accidents, malaria, smoking, or abuse of alcohol or drugs.

And an article at Bloomberg, using AQLI data, says that while Covid-19 killed about 2.6 million people in its first year, air pollution killed about 10 million in the same time ().

The problem of early deaths from air pollution is worldwide, but it is not evenly distributed. In the countries where the air does not meet the World Health Organization standards, life expectancy was reduced by air pollution an average of 2.2 years. In some places, it is far worse than that. In India, bad air shortens people’s lives an average of 5.9 years. Certain South Asian countries have similar numbers.

Among the most problematical types of air pollution is particulates known as PM2.5. The designation refers to the size, 2.5 microns or less. It can get into the lungs and the body has no easy way to remove it. This can produce a problem that gets worse over time.

There is some good news for the United States. Our air is of better quality than it is in much of the world, and our air pollution kills far fewer people than our Covid-19. Nevertheless, people do die of pollution in this country, and it is not just a problem for polluted cities. According to Wikipedia, it is estimated that 22,000 to 50,000 people die in the United States due to air pollution each year (). A study published in Atmospheric Environment in 2005 put the number for Vermont at 224 per year, despite the state’s clean air (

A child playing near industrial stacks innocently breathes the polluted air. (Adobe stock/40753847/fcWihr).

There are numerous sources of air pollution. In this country, pollution was extreme in some places over the summer of this year because of smoke from wildfires. There are emissions of deadly air pollution in places where land is cleared with fire, such as Indonesia and Brazil. There are other problems associated with land use and industry. But the biggest culprit, according to the AQLI Annual Update, is undoubtedly combustion of fossil fuels.

According to a study by the American Lung Association in California in 2016, the societal cost of burning a gallon of gasoline is about $1.30 per gallon. That cost is over and above the purchase price. It comes in terms of damage to property, the environment, the climate, and health (). This is the cost of the damage we do by driving gasoline-powered cars. The societal costs of diesel oil and heating oil are similar.

The FAQ pages at the Energy Information Administration site,, includes the question, “How much gasoline does the United States consume?” For the year 2020, the answer is 123.73 billion gallons. Doing the math, that means the societal effects, including health care, death, loss of livelihood, environmental damage from floods, storms, and wildfires, and so on, come to nearly $160 billion per year, which is partly paid for by the people who suffer, but also by taxes and higher insurance bills.

That is just gasoline. It is not all of the societal costs of our use of fossil fuels. It does not include diesel oil, natural gas, coal, or propane, all of which increase the costs even more.

The fact that fossil fuels are tied to both climate change and to deaths and sickness from air pollution gives us an advantage with both problems. We have to slow and stop climate change and we also have to reduce use of fossil fuels to reduce deadly pollution. Any action that will address one of these problems is likely to do proportionate work reducing the other. We have economic and social reasons to deal with both.

Part of the good news is that multiple studies show that it really is possible to replace fossil fuels completely, while reducing costs for energy and increasing reliability. One such study led by Mark Z. Jacobson at Stanford University in 2017, published in Energy and Environmental Science, provides a road map for states (). And the really good news is that when we make that transition, we will not just address climate change; we will be healthier and wealthier in the process.

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