Air Pollution Lowers Life Expectancy in Beijing

By on January 15, 2014

Air pollution is a health hazard that countries and cities have been fighting to control for many years. Large, urban areas are especially prone to having concentrations of pollutants that are higher than what is considered a safe amount. In some places, such as Beijing, days with high levels of air pollution have become the norm rather than the exception. For instance, from 2004-2008, the average daily concentrations of particulate matter with a diameter less than 2.5 µm (PM2.5) in Beijing was over 4 times the recommended daily level. A recent study in Beijing by a group of Chinese and Australian scientists shows just how dangerous air pollution is by identifying the average number of years of life that are lost as a result of exposure to air pollution.

In this study, “air pollution” referred to 4 pollutants: particulate matter with diameters less than 2.5 µm and 10 µm (PM2.5 and PM10), SO2, and NO2. In addition to daily air pollution levels, the researchers also collected  average temperature, air pressure, and humidity. The researchers then looked for any trends between these factors and number of deaths. A unique part of the study was the calculation of average years of life lost (YLL), an indicator of how air pollution alters life expectancy. To determine average YLL, the researchers collected data (age, sex, and date of death) on non-accidental deaths from the Beijing Public Safety Bureau from January 1, 2004 to December 31, 2008. This information was then compared to the average life expectancy from 2000 to 2009.

Each individual pollutant was found to lower life expectancy by 15 to 16 years. When different combinations of the pollutants were analyzed, the pollutants were found to lower life expectancy by a smaller amount than they did individually. This may be caused by the pollutants originating from the same source or operating using the same reactions. The average YLL was higher in men than women, and was higher in people under the age of 65 than people over the age of 65. In fact, the YLL among people under the age of 65 was twice the YLL for people over the age of 65. When only PM2.5 and PM10 were considered, YLL was higher for women than men. When only NO2 and SO­2 were considered, YLL was higher for men than women. This difference is thought to be attributed to the fact that women have smaller lungs and airways, which may make it easier for particles to irritate the lungs and airways.

This study is important because it provides evidence that major steps need to be taken in Beijing to reduce air pollution. There is also new information about the effects of air pollution that may affect public policy in Beijing regarding air pollution. Furthermore, the study indicates that the effects of air pollution on YLL only last for a short time (about two days). This means that if air pollution in Beijing is reduced and remains at acceptable levels, YLL due to air pollution should begin to decrease within a short amount of time.

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