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India recorded highest air pollution exposure globally in 2019: Report

The State of Global Air 2020, released Wednesday, said India has been recording an increase in PM 2.5 pollution since 2010 contrary to Centre’s claims that annual air pollution levels are reducing in the country
Delhi, one of the world’s most polluted cities, enjoyed a respite from air pollution until September this year.(AP)
Updated on Oct 21, 2020 11:19 AM IST
Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByJayashree Nandi

India recorded the highest annual average PM 2.5 concentration exposure in the world last year, according to the State of Global Air 2020 (SOGA 2020) report released on Wednesday.

India was followed by Nepal, Niger, Qatar and Nigeria in high PM 2.5 exposures. This means people in India are exposed to the highest PM 2.5 concentrations globally.

Also Read: India must wage an immediate, unified war against pollution

The report also said that India has been recording an increase in PM 2.5 pollution since 2010 contrary to Centre’s claims that annual air pollution levels in the country are coming down. Out of the 20 most populous countries, 14 have recorded a gradual improvement in air quality but India, Bangladesh, Niger, Pakistan and Japan are among those that have recorded a modest increase in air pollution levels.

SOGA, released by US-based Health Effects Institute and Global Burden of Disease (GBD), uses both data from ground monitors and satellite to make their assessments. To estimate the annual average PM2.5 exposure, or concentrations, GBD scientists link the concentrations in each block (they divide the globe in blocks or grids) with the number of people living within each block to produce a population weighted annual average concentration.

Global map of population-weighted annual average PM2.5 concentrations in 2019. (Sourced)

Out of 87 health risk factors based on total number of deaths caused in 2019 assessed by the team, air pollution has the fourth highest risk globally preceded by high systolic blood pressure, tobacco and dietary risks. But in India, air pollution is the highest risk factor because of the huge burden of premature deaths it contributes to.

India is also among the top ten countries with highest ozone (O3) exposure in 2019. Qatar recorded the highest O3 exposure followed by Nepal and India. Among the 20 most populous countries, India recorded the highest increase (17%) in O3 concentrations in the past ten years.

On average, global exposure to ozone increased from about 47.3 parts per billion (ppb) in 2010 to 49.5 ppb in 2019. O3 is a major respiratory irritant which is not released directly into the air but is formed in a complex chemical interaction between nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the presence of sunlight. NOx is emitted from the burning of fossil fuels (oil, gas, and coal) in motor vehicles, power plants, industrial boilers, and home heating systems. Volatile organic compounds are also emitted by motor vehicles, as well as by oil and gas extraction and processing and other industrial activities.

Change in population-weighted annual average PM2.5 exposure in the 20 most populous countries, 2010-2019. (Sourced)

The only silver lining for India though is that it has managed to reduce the number of people exposed to household air pollution. China reduced the percentage of its population exposed to household air pollution from 54% to 36%, while India reduced its percentage from 73% to 61% over the decade.

Since 2010, over 50 million fewer people have been exposed to household air pollution. The Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana Household LPG programme and other schemes have helped to dramatically expand access to clean energy, especially for rural households, Health Effects Institute said in a statement.

“At this time, the data indicates that there was a modest increase in outdoor PM2.5 levels In India over the last decade. We know from experience elsewhere that the air pollution problem is unlikely to be solved in the short-term. With the National Clean Air Programme and introduction of BS-VI emission standards, India has begun to take steps towards improving air quality and it is critical that the efforts are continued and expanded over the next few years in order to see improvements in air quality. This will require concerted action at both at the national and state and local levels,” said Pallavi Pant, scientist at Health Effects Institute.

Top 10 countries with the highest population-weighted annual average PM2.5 exposures in 2019. (Sourced)

“Given the high exposure and staggering health burden of air pollution, India must show urgency and recognise air pollution as a regional-scale problem. The National Clean Air Program should be expanded beyond the urban centres with an air-shed approach prioritising the local and regional mitigation measures to achieve clean air goals for India,” said Sagnik Dey, associate professor, IIT Delhi.

Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar has said in various platforms that Delhi’s air has improved significantly since 2016 while Central Pollution Control Board’s reports suggest that air pollution in India is towards a decline. Javadekar had said in the Lok Sabha last year that the government would resolve the toxic air pollution problem in Delhi in less than 15 years—the time Beijing took to curb a similar problem.

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