Just how harmful is air pollution and how bad is India placed

In India, life expectancy dropped by 3.86 years in 2015 due to air pollution

By Pushp Bajaj
Published: Friday 06 March 2020

That air pollution was harmful was known. But a widely reported recent study on the extent of the harm it can cause has come across as shocking even for experts. And India, with its billion-plus population, seems ill-prepared to cope.

Air pollution shaved three years off average life expectancy, causing 8.8 million premature deaths per year on average, according to the study’s results published March 3, 2020. The damage was higher than those caused by smoking and diseases, according to the study.

“We had not expected that air pollution mortality is so dominant compared to other, more accepted health risk factors, including smoking,” Jos Lelieveld, a professor and researcher at Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, Germany, told Down to Earth.

“The comparison with violence, being an order of magnitude less of a risk factor, is telling,” he added.

India was worse off with an average drop of 3.86 years in life expectancy due to air pollution. It caused 1.8 million premature deaths in 2015 — less than only in China. The country placed 19th among 181 vis-a-vis loss of life expectancy.

The second-most populous country was better aware of the danger but not ready to deal with it, Ajay Nagpure, head of air pollution research at World Resources Institute, India, told DTE. “There are no concrete on-ground measures to mitigate the impacts of air pollution,” he said.

The average value of fine particulate pollution in India was nearly four times what World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines mentioned.

Transportation, construction and garbage burning contributes the air in India In urban India while burning biomass for cooking is significant in the villages.

According to a nation-wide study published in journal Lancet in 2019:

“Most states, and 76.8 per cent of the population of India, were exposed to annual population-weighted mean PM2.5 greater than the limit recommended by the National Ambient Air Quality Standards in India.”

Nagpure sought a policy framework with “different goals (short-, mid- and long-term) for different boundaries (airshed, city, district, state, rural and urban)”. He stressed on garbage burning in the short-term and managing transport in the longer run.

“Indian cities have 60-80 per cent daily collection efficiency of garbage, which means that only increasing 20-40 per cent waste collection efficiency will reduce 10-20 per cent urban in-boundary air pollution,” he added.

Low-income countries anyway have a lower level of health care and people are more affected by air pollution, Lelieveld said. “In sub-Saharan Africa and parts of south Asia many children die from pneumonia induced by air pollution. This is not the case in Europe, North America and East Asia,” he added.

The highest mortality rates and loss in life expectancy were reported in east Asia, south Asia and Africa, according to the study.

Although the mortality rate (deaths per 100,000 people per year) was higher for Europe (133) than south Asia (119), the loss in life expectancy for south Asia (3.9 years) was much higher than Europe (2.2 years).

The study also noted diseases reduced life expectancy at a lower rate compared to air pollution and smoking.

HIV/AIDS reduced life expectancy by 0.7 years, while malaria and other diseases carried by parasites reduced life expectancy by 0.6 years, according to the study.

All forms of violence, including deaths in wars, reduced life expectancy even lesser by comparison, to 0.3 years. 

The study analysed the impacts of air pollution at the country-level using data from 2015 and a novel modelling approach to disentangle the effects from human-caused pollution and natural sources like dust. 

The impacts on human health were divided (in a decreasing order) into:

  1. Lower respiratory tract infection
  2. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  3. Lung cancer
  4. Heart disease
  5. Cerebrovascular disease leading to stroke
  6. Other non-communicable diseases (high blood pressure, diabetes, etc) 

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