‘Air pollution cuts India’s average life expectancy by 5 years’

Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo are the others mentioned in a new report by the University of Chicago

By Taran Deol
Published: Tuesday 14 June 2022
Photo: Vikas Choudhary / CSE
Photo: Vikas Choudhary / CSE Photo: Vikas Choudhary / CSE

Worsening air pollution is robbing a decade of the life expectancy of those living in Delhi, the world’s most polluted city and India’s capital, according to a new analysis by the University of Chicago. Indians, on average, are losing about five years.

The Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC)’s Air Quality Life Index (AQLI), in its India factsheet released this month, noted that these figures were “relative to what (the life expectancy) would be if the World Health Organization (WHO) guideline regarding fine particulate pollution (PM2.5) of 5 microgram per cubic metre (µg/m3) was met.”

Read Down To Earth’s coverage of air pollution in India

In comparison, 1.8 years of life are lost due to child and maternal malnutrition, while smoking robs nearly two years of life expectancy in India.

The report noted that the country’s entire population — all 1.3 billion — breathe air with particulate pollution level well above the WHO guideline. Also, more than 63 per cent breathe air worse than the national air quality standard of 40 µg/m3.

Nearly 40 per cent of India’s population residing in the Indo-Gangetic plains — which includes Bihar, Chandigarh, Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal —  are set to lose some 7.6 years of life expectancy. Those in Lucknow will lose 9.5 years if current pollution levels persist, the report said.

If the WHO guidelines are met in the 10 most populous states of the country, life expectancy can improve significantly, the report noted:

  • Uttar Pradesh will gain more than eight years on its life expectancy
  • Bihar will gain more than seven years
  • West Bengal will gain nearly six years
  • Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh will gain around five years
  • Gujarat will gain a little over three years
  • Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu will gain some two years 

Potential Gain in Life Expectancy from Reducing PM2.5 to the WHO Guideline in the 10 Most Populous States of India



Source: AQLI, Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago

Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana and Tripura have the most years to gain — 8.2 years, 7.9 years, 7.4 and 6 years respectively — if pollution levels meet the WHO standard, according to the report.

“Since 1998, average annual particulate pollution has increased by 61.4 per cent, leading to a further reduction in average life expectancy of 2.1 years. Since 2013, about 44 per cent of the world’s increase in pollution has come from India,” the report noted.

The air pollution problem has become so bad that it can no longer be ignored. So, in 2019 the government launched the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) which set a non-binding goal to reduce particulate pollution by 20 to 30 per cent as compared to the 2017 levels, by 2024. If these targets are met, health can improve remarkably.

“According to the AQLI, a permanent, nationwide reduction of 25 per cent, the midpoint of NCAP’s target range, would increase India’s average national life expectancy by 1.4 years and by 2.6 years for residents of the National Capital Territory of Delhi,” the report noted.

India is among the most polluted countries in the world, second only to Bangladesh which is set to lose nearly seven years of life expectancy due to air pollution. Nepal (4.1 years), Pakistan (3.8 years) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (2.9 years) are the others on the list.

The report also found global average life expectancy comes down by 2.2 years due to air pollution. This equates to more than three times that of alcohol use and unsafe water, six times that of HIV/AIDS and 89 times that of conflict and terrorism.

“Even as economies stalled across the world, global pollution remained flat during the first year of the pandemic, underscoring that pollution is a stubborn problem solved only by strong policies,” the report said.

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