China and India account for 55% of more than 5.5 million premature deaths caused by pollution annually, latest international research has revealed.
It means that more than three million deaths are caused yearly in China and India, two of the fastest growing economies of the world.
“About 1.6 million people died of air pollution in China and 1.4 million died in India in 2013,” the data compiled as part of the Global Burden of Disease study, an international collaboration led by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, said.
It measured health and its risk factors, including air pollution levels, for 188 countries between 1990 and 2013.
The research was presented on Friday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and painted a grim picture for the future: it found that despite efforts to limit future emissions, the number of deaths linked to pollution will climb over the next two decades unless much-stricter emission and anti-pollution norms were put in place.
Emission of small particles by power plants, industrial manufacturing, vehicle exhaust and burning coal and wood was the main culprits behind pollution and deaths.
“In China, burning coal is the biggest contributor to poor air quality. Qiao Ma, a PhD student at the School of Environment, Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, found that outdoor air pollution from coal alone caused an estimated 3,66,000 deaths in China in 2013,” the report said.
Ma calculated that air pollution will cause anywhere from 9,90,000 to 1.3 million premature deaths in 2030 unless even more ambitious targets are introduced.
In China, the problem is likely to become more acute because of its ageing population.
The researchers predicted that “…if air pollution levels remain constant, the number of deaths will increase because the population is aging and older people are more susceptible to illnesses caused by poor air quality.”
The report said: “In India, a major contributor to poor air quality is the practice of burning wood, dung and similar sources of biomass for cooking and heating.
Millions of families, among the poorest in India, are regularly exposed to high levels of particulate matter in their own homes”.
“India needs a three-pronged mitigation approach to address industrial coal burning, open burning for agriculture, and household air pollution sources,” said Chandra Venkataraman, professor of Chemical Engineering at the IIT Bombay.
The study suggested that China and India learn from the experiences of North America, Western Europe and Japan, which in the last 50 years, have made massive strides to “combat pollution by using cleaner fuels, more efficient vehicles, limiting coal burning and putting restrictions on electric power plants and factories.”