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Air pollution biggest health risk in India, cuts 5 years in life expectancy: Study

ByJayashree Nandi
Jun 15, 2022 11:17 AM IST

Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC)’s Air Quality Life Index says Delhi stands to gain life expectancy by 10 years on average if annual average pollution levels did not exceed five micrograms per cubic metres

Air pollution is the greatest threat to human health in India, reducing life expectancy by five years, according to Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC)’s Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) released on Tuesday. In contrast, child and maternal malnutrition reduces average life expectancy in India by about 1.8 years and smoking by about 1.5 years, it added.

Globally, India is the second most polluted country preceded by Bangladesh. (HT PHOTO) PREMIUM
Globally, India is the second most polluted country preceded by Bangladesh. (HT PHOTO)

The study also said that residents in Delhi, India’s most polluted region, would gain 10 years of life expectancy on average if annual average PM 2.5 levels did not exceed five micrograms per cubic metre, the threshold identified as optimum as per the World Health Organization’s (WHO) revised air quality guideline released in September last year.

Delhi was also the most polluted state with around 9.7 years of life expectancy lost on average as per AQLI’s analysis last year, based on the WHO’s earlier target of 10 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3) for PM2.5 levels. In September last year, WHO brought this down to 5 µg/m3.

According to AQLI’s analysis, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana and Tripura were among the top five polluted India states, and stand to gain 8.2, 7.9, 7.4 and 6 years respectively in life expectancy if pollution stays below the prescribed WHO safe limit.

Globally, India is the second most polluted country after Bangladesh, where life expectancy reduced was by 6.9 years in 2020 due to poor air, followed by Nepal (4.1 years), Pakistan (3.8 years) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (2.9 years).

AQLI found that particulate air pollution takes 2.2 years off global average life expectancy, or a combined 17 billion life years. The impact on life expectancy is comparable to that of smoking, 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, the analysis said.

“It would be a global emergency if Martians came to Earth and sprayed a substance that caused the average person on the planet to lose more than two years of life expectancy. This is similar to the situation that prevails in many parts of the world, except we are spraying the substance, not some invaders from outer space,” said Michael Greenstone, the Milton Friedman Distinguished Service professor in Economics and creator of the AQLI, in a statement. “Fortunately, history teaches us that it does not need to be this way. In many places around the planet, like the United States, strong policies, supported by an equally strong willingness for change, have succeeded in reducing air pollution.”

AQLI translates particulate air pollution into its impact on life expectancy. It quantifies the causal relationship between long-term human exposure to air pollution and life expectancy.

For its fresh analysis, the AQLI team used air pollution data from 2020 when Covid-19-related restrictions were imposed globally. “According to new and revised satellite-derived PM2.5 data, the global population weighted-average PM2.5 level declined slightly between 2019 and 2020, from 27.7 to 27.5 micrograms per cubic metres — more than five times the WHO’s revised guideline of 5 micrograms per cubic metres—despite a rapid slowdown in economic activities across the globe. In fact, global particulate pollution concentrations today are roughly the same as they were in 2003,” the analysis said.

But air pollution levels continued to increase in South Asia in 2020. In India, PM2.5 levels rose by 2.9% year-over-year to 55.8 micrograms per cubic metres. In Pakistan, it rose by 6.3% to 44.2 micrograms per cubic metres. The levels rose in Bangladesh by 13.1% to 75.8 micrograms per cubic metres.

AQLI Director Christa Hasenkopf said this shows that air pollution is a very stubborn problem which requires consistent and strong action.

The average resident of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal countries is exposed to particulate pollution levels that are 47% higher than at the turn of the century. If pollution levels in 2000 remained constant over time, the residents in these countries would be on track to lose 3.3 years of life expectancy.

India also faces the highest health burden of air pollution due to its high particulate pollution concentrations and large population. The particulate pollution levels -- PM 2.5have increased from 53 micrograms per cubic metre in 2013 to 56 micrograms per cubic metre today—roughly 11 times higher than the WHO limit.

China stands to lose 2.5 years of life expectancy but it has also gained two years due to the reduction in pollution levels since 2013. China’s pollution has been decreasing since the country began a “war against pollution” in 2014. This decline continued through 2020, with pollution levels down 39.6% compared to 2013, the analysis said. Due to these improvements, the average Chinese citizen can expect to live two years longer than in 2013 provided the reductions are sustained. Beijing recorded the largest decline in air pollution between 2013 and 2020 , with PM2.5 levels falling from 85 to 38 micrograms per cubic metre in just seven years — a 55% decline. From 2019 to 2020, Beijing’s pollution fell by 8.7%.

“It is important to note that air pollution is also deeply intertwined with climate change. Both challenges are primarily caused by the same culprit: fossil fuel emissions from power plants, vehicles, and other industrial sources. These challenges also present a rare win-win opportunity, because policy can simultaneously reduce dependence on fossil fuels that will allow people to live longer and healthier lives and reduce the costs of climate change,” the analysis said.

“We are noticing a huge gap between policy and implementation. We have all the sectoral policies and there are rules and regulations for those policies. For example we have an urban transport policy, we have swachch bharat etc. But those policies need to translate into implementable action by developing the right infrastructure. Progress on this is still very slow. If we don’t make changes at the infrastructure level we will not see big change on ground. We are following the national clean air programme, its plans and funding for various projects. A lot of the focus is on dust management, road sweeping etc but not so much on strategy development for cities and regions. We need hard action but at a scale,” said Anumita Roy Chowdhury, executive director, Centre for Science and Environment.

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