Aerial view of pollution being emitted from steel factories in Hancheng, Shaanxi, China
How deadly is air pollution?
01:07 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Air pollution will shorten the life expectancy of children by 20 months on average, with kids in South Asian countries such as India and Pakistan most vulnerable, a new report says.

According to the 2019 State of Global Air (SOGA) report, released on Wednesday, air pollution is the fifth leading factor in mortality across the world, responsible for more deaths than alcohol, malnutrition and drugs.

Particularly at risk are countries in Asia and Africa, where high levels of lung-clogging particulate matter (PM 2.5) and the regular use of fuels like coal and charcoal for home cooking result in a dramatically reduced life expectancy.

PM 2.5 are dangerous airborne pollution particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter.

“The growing burden of disease from air pollution is among the major challenges facing national governments and public health officials, with far-reaching implications for national economies and human well-being,” the report said.

The problem is particularly pronounced in countries such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, which in the past year have seen cities blanketed in thick clouds of toxic air for days at a time.

On average, the SOGA report said, air pollution means a child born today in South Asia will die 30 months earlier than he or she would have done otherwise. Globally, that figure is 20 months.

“Major PM 2.5 sources in India include household burning of solid fuels; dust from construction, roads, and other activities; industrial and power plant burning of coal; brick production; transportation; and diesel-powered equipment,” the report said.

China a success story?

To estimate average life expectancy, researchers calculated the difference between life expectancy and the average person’s likelihood from dying of different diseases at certain ages.

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African countries like Niger, Cameroon and Nigeria were also at risk from toxic air, the report said, cutting nearly two years off life expectancies.

Frank Kelly, a professor of environmental health at King’s College in London, said that until recently little data had been available on air pollution challenges in sub-Saharan Africa.

The report “brings into one place the latest information on air quality trends and health impact patterns for countries across the globe,” he said.

The report said one of the success stories of the past year had been China, which although it still had severe air pollution problems had seen a drop in PM 2.5 particulates due to strict new governmental controls.

One analysis found there had been a drop of almost a third in the number of dangerous particulates in 74 Chinese cities, the study said.

But despite the rapid progress, the SOGA report said there was still much work to be done, with the average Chinese air pollution data far below the World Health Organization’s air quality standards.

Kelly said that the report confirmed that India and China accounted for more than 50% of the 5 million deaths globally due to air pollution.

Journalist Nina Avramova contributed to this report