India had world's highest pollution-related deaths in 2019: Report

Deaths due to other forms of pollutions also highest in India

By Shourabh Gupta
Published: Thursday 19 May 2022

Air pollution caused an estimated 1.6 million deaths in 2019 in India — the highest in the world, according to a new report. The overall pollution-related deaths were also the highest in India (2.4 million); this includes water, lead and occupation-related pollution, the study showed.

A majority of these deaths were caused by particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5) pollution, it added. Household air pollution was the next largest cause of deaths in the country, according to the report by the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health.

Air pollution was most severe in the Indo-Gangetic Plain, where New Delhi and many of the most polluted cities are located, the paper noted. 

Burning of biomass in households was the single largest cause of air pollution deaths in India, followed by coal combustion and crop burning, according to the study.

Water pollution killed 0.5 million, occupational pollution-related deaths were 0.16 million and lead exposure killed 0.23 million Indians, the report added. 

Although the number of deaths from pollution sources associated with extreme poverty (such as indoor air pollution and water pollution) has decreased, these reductions are offset by increased deaths caused due to industrial pollution such as ambient air pollution and chemical pollution. 

Globally, 9 million deaths were caused by pollution. Air pollution accounted for most of these deaths — 6.67 million, according to the report.

Outdoor air pollution caused 4.5 million deaths in 2019, up from 4.2 million deaths in 2015 and 2.9 million in 2000, the research paper said. “Air pollution from industry processes, along with urbanisation, contributed to a 7 per cent increase in pollution-related deaths from 2015 to 2019.”

The effect of pollution on disease and disability varied by sex, the data showed. Men are more likely to die from exposure to ambient air pollution, lead pollution and pollution from occupational hazards than women, according to the report. Women and children are more likely to die from exposure to water pollution than men. 

Comparing the effects of pollution on morbidity and mortality with those of other risk factors shows that pollution continues to be one of the largest risk factors for disease and premature death globally. The impact of pollution on health is higher than war, terrorism, malaria, HIV, tuberculosis, drugs and alcohol, and the number of deaths caused by pollution is on par with those caused by smoking.

Global estimated deaths by risk factor or cause

Source: Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation and Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study 2019

According to the report, pollution-related deaths are increasing in the poorest areas of the world. The problem is exacerbated in areas of the world where the population is the densest, like in Asia. In these areas financial and government resources to address the pollution problem as well as other challenges like health care availability and diet are limited and stretched thin. 

Traditional pollution caused economic losses of 1 per cent of India’s GDP. Economic losses due to modern forms of pollution have increased as a proportion of GDP between 2000 and 2019 in India and China. 

By contrast, economic losses due to modern forms of pollution have fallen as a proportion of GDP in the USA and in 15 EU countries. The reduction of economic losses in these countries is a reflection of pollution control, the outsourcing of polluting industries, and reductions in death rates.

India, having severe pollution-related challenges, has made substantial investments in monitoring and planning to aid pollution reduction efforts. There are instruments and regulatory powers to mitigate pollution sources but there is no centralised system to drive pollution control efforts and achieve substantial improvements in the country. 

However, the pollution level remains above WHO guidelines in 93 per cent of India. 

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