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The average kid will get 20 months less to live thanks to toxic air, says study

A two-year long Global News investigation that uncovered a troubling trend of industrial leaks and spills in the Sarnia, Ont., area last year prompted provincial promises of a health study and plans to drive down emissions. But where do those commitments stand one year later? Carolyn Jarvis reports.

You’ve likely seen a special air quality statement from Environment Canada, advising people on smoggy days of high levels of air pollution and the problems it brings with it: coughing, throat irritation, trouble breathing and headaches.

But a new report on the state of global air from the Health Effects Institute reveals toxic air is actually shortening people’s lifespan by nearly two years.

Children born today can expect to die an average of roughly 20 months earlier than if they lived in a pollution-free world, according to the report.

“Air pollution reduces average life expectancy by almost as much as tobacco use,” it says.

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The stark figures join a growing body of evidence that air pollution kills. More than four-million people die every year as a result of outdoor pollution, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). It says 91 per cent of the global population live in places where the air quality exceeds its guidelines.

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WHO’s guidelines cover everything from the mold and dampness in your home to carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and other particulates in our air. The full guidelines can be viewed here, but what’s clear from the new Health Effects Institute report is that they’re not being met in most places. If they were, the report says, the average person would live seven months longer.

“Less-developed countries, with poor air quality, have the most to gain.”

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Per the report, right now, the life expectancy lost varies around the world:

  • People in Canada lose a quarter-of-a-year
  • People in the United States lose just under half-a-year
  • People in Russia lose slightly more than three-quarters of a year
  • People in Sudan lose a year-and-a-half
  • People in India lose a year-and-a-half

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Here is what it says people around the world could expect to gain if the WHO air quality targets were met:

  • People in Canada wouldn’t gain any time
  • People in South Africa would gain just under half-a-year
  • People in Sudan would gain nearly a year
  • People in Nigeria would gain almost a full year
  • People in China would gain three-quarters of a year
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Atmospheric haze and polluted air hover above Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong, China, on March 20, 2019. According to Hong Kong’s Environmental Protection Department, the city’s bad air pollution is mainly due to motor vehicles, marine vessels and power plants. EPA/JEROME FAVRE
Atmospheric haze and polluted air hover above Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong, China, on March 20, 2019. According to Hong Kong’s Environmental Protection Department, the city’s bad air pollution is mainly due to motor vehicles, marine vessels and power plants. EPA/JEROME FAVRE EPA/JEROME FAVRE

Health Canada estimated in a 2017 paper that roughly 14,400 deaths each year can be attributed to air pollution, while another Canadian study that same year had a lower estimate: 7,700.

READ MORE: Here’s how air pollution can hurt your heart

Still, it’s a tricky thing to track, Michael Brauer, a professor at UBC’s School of Population and Public Health who studies the global impacts of air pollution, previously told Global News.

And even if you live in a country like Canada, where the life expectancy impact is more muted than in countries like China, there are still risks.

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Air pollution joined the anti-vax movement to top WHO’s list of 2019 health threats. A study just last month found that in addition to hurting your lungs, polluted air also affects your heart.

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A paper published in the European Heart Journal estimated that air pollution was responsible for an additional 8.8-million deaths in 2015, and between 40 and 80 per cent of those are from cardiovascular diseases like heart attack and stroke.

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