Increased air pollution cuts victims’ lifespan by a decade in US and Europe, costing billions

But different calculations mean estimated cost is three times lower in EU than with US methodology

One of the benefits to cutting fossil fuel consumption is lowering air pollution. A new study in the August issue of Ecological Indicators shows that, on average, an increase in pollution particles in the air of 10 micrograms per cubic meter cuts victims’ life expectancy by 9-11 years – more than previously thought. But the estimated economic cost of this differs wildly between the US and the EU because of the calculations used.

The author of the study, Prof. Mikael Skou Andersen of Aarhus University in Denmark, says we need a robust and consistent way of determining the economic benefit of reducing air pollution to produce compelling data that encourages countries to reduce their use of fossil fuels.

When we burn fossil fuels, tiny particles are released, causing air pollution. This is known to cause premature death, and policies that aim to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels often cite the potential health benefits – and related cost savings – linked to reducing air pollution.

But calculating the costs associated with premature death caused by air pollution is complex and has resulted in very different estimates: because of the different methodologies used, the cost of air pollution related to fossil fuel consumption is estimated to be three times higher in the US than the EU.

“The existing literature is ambiguous and there are differences in the approaches adopted in EU and USA for how to account for such costs,” commented Prof. Andersen. “People are willing to pay a price to reduce risks for dying prematurely, provided we have an understanding of the implications and magnitudes of such risks.”

In the US, the cost-benefit analysis of reducing air pollution is calculated based on the number of lives saved, with each life currently estimated to be worth $7.4 million. But in Europe, the focus is on the change in life expectancy: most of the victims of air pollution-related deaths are in their 70s and 80s, so the number of life years lost is thought to be only one or two. This leads to a much lower cost estimate.

To work out a more accurate figure, Prof. Andersen used a lifetable of 100,000 people with an age distribution that matches the current population, which showed estimated mortality rates by age. He determined the number of people expected to survive for their remaining lifetime in each age group and totaled this to give the total number of expected life-years. He then simulated the effect of long-term exposure to increased air pollution (of 10 micrograms of small particles per cubic meter) on mortality.

The result revealed the average age of an air pollution victim is 78.9 years and their average loss of life expectancy is 9–11 years – much longer than a frequently cited estimate of 1-2 years. For comparison, the estimated loss of life years to traffic fatalities is 35-40 years. Dr. Andersen hopes that this information will inform international institutions and policy makers that want to accurately account for deaths caused by air pollution due to fossil fuel consumption.

“There is concern about air pollution and its health impacts, more so following ‘diesel-gate’,” said Prof. Andersen. “But many European countries are unable to meet the air pollution standards they have agreed to in the European Union. We need to understand the true impact of long-term exposure to air pollution to develop better informed policies and reduce fossil fuel consumption.”

Notes for editors
The article is “Co-benefits of climate mitigation: Counting statistical lives or life-years?,” by Mikael Skou Andersen ( It appears in Ecological Indicators, volume 79, (August 2017), published by Elsevier.  Copies of this paper are available to credentialed journalists upon request; please contact Elsevier’s newsroom at or +31 20 485 2492.

About Ecological Indicators 
The ultimate aim of Ecological Indicators is to integrate the monitoring and assessment of ecological and environmental indicators with management practices. The journal provides a forum for the discussion of the applied scientific development and review of traditional indicator applications as well as for theoretical, modeling and quantitative approaches such as index development.

About Elsevier
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Media contact
James Palser
+44 0 1865 843237,-costing-billions

Author/Researcher contact: Phone: +4587157689. Mikael Skou Andersen: professor of environmental policy analysis in Department of Environmental Science and also associated Department of Agroecology. My research addresses the greening of the economy, with focus on policy instruments, regulations and …


Even more years of life at stake in other countries and regions…

Rigorous research is critical to highlight the negative effects of air pollution on child and maternal health. It’s also key to showing the benefits of clean cooking.

Five recently-published studies add to the growing evidence base of the benefits clean cooking. Focusing on women and newborn health, the studies showcase both the impacts of household air pollution and the benefits clean cooking can have on human health in developing countries around the world.

  • Adverse pregnancy outcomes in Nigeria: A study from Nigeria found that compared to women using traditional kerosene and biomass stoves, women using ethanol stoves during pregnancy had babies born one week later and 88 grams heavier.
  • Low birthweights in India: A study of pregnant women in urban and rural areas in India found a 70 gram decrease in birthweight for babies born to mothers exposed to biomass emissions compared to those using LPG.
  • Brain development: A UNICEF report found that approximately 17 million infants worldwide are at risk for reduced brain development and increased brain damage due to living in areas with poor air quality.
  • Low birthweights in London: A study in London found that long-term PM2.5 exposure during pregnancy was associated with a 6% increase in the likelihood of babies with low birthweights.
  • Child pneumonia in Nepal: A study in Nepal found that of four fuel types—electric, biomass, gas, and kerosene—kerosene, followed by biomass, were associated with the highest amount of childhood pneumonia.

In addition to these studies highlighting maternal and child health, the GBD MAPS Working Group published a report on the Burden of Disease Attributable to Major Air Pollution Sources in India. The study found that in 2015 of the source sectors studied, residential biomass was the largest contributor of PM2.5 emissions in India, accounting for 23.9% of all ambient emissions.