'Life expectancy can be increased by 9 years in UP, 8 in Bihar if air pollution levels are reduced'

Particulate pollution is the greatest threat to human health in India


India’s entire population lives in areas where the average particulate pollution level exceeds the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines; while almost seven in 10 Indians live where air pollution exceeds the country’s own average level of 40 µg/m3 .

Particulate Matter refers to fine inhalable particles, with diameters that are generally 2.5 micrometres and smaller.

A new report by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC) concludes that if the world were to permanently reduce fine particulate pollution (PM2.5) to meet the WHO guidelines, the average person would add 2.3 years to their life expectancy. That means 17.8 billion life-years around the world.

The WHO lists air pollution as one of the greatest environmental risks to health. By reducing air pollution levels, countries can reduce the burden of stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and both chronic and acute respiratory diseases, including asthma. In 2019, outdoor air pollution caused some 4.2 million premature deaths.

“Three-quarters of air pollution’s impact on global life expectancy occurs in just six countries—Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, China, Nigeria and Indonesia—where people lose one to more than six years of their lives because of the air they breathe,” said Michael Greenstone, the Milton Friedman Distinguished Service Professor in Economics and creator of the AQLI (air quality life index) along with colleagues at EPIC.

If air pollution in India’s most populous states is reduced, people in Uttar Pradesh would gain nine life-years, followed by Bihar where the gain is projected to be eight and then West Bengal where six years would be gained. In Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka; the gain would be between two plus and three years.

The report points out that countries that bear the greatest burden of air pollution lack the fundamental tools that have facilitated previous improvements in air quality.

“Timely, reliable, open air quality data in particular can be the backbone of civil society and government clean air efforts—providing the information that people and governments lack and that allows for more informed policy decisions,” says Christa Hasenkopf, the director of AQLI and air quality programs at EPIC.

On South Asia, the report notes that no other location on the planet is the deadly impact of pollution more visible. The four most polluted countries of the world—Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan—have a quarter of the global population. The AQLI data reveals that residents are expected to lose about five years of their lives on average if the current high levels of pollution persist, and more in the most polluted regions—accounting for more than half of the total life years lost globally due to pollution.

The India fact sheet of the report points out worrying trends.

From 1998 to 2021, average annual particulate pollution increased by 67.7 percent, further reducing average life expectancy by 2.3 years. From 2013 to 2021, 59.1 per cent of the world’s increase in pollution has come from India.

Particulate pollution is the greatest threat to human health in India, taking 5.3 years off the life of the average Indian. In contrast, cardiovascular diseases reduce the average Indian’s life expectancy by about 4.5 years, while child and maternal malnutrition reduce life expectancy by 1.8 years.

In 2019, India declared a “war against pollution” and launched its National Clean Air Programme (NCAP), signaling its desire to reduce particulate pollution. NCAP originally aimed to reduce particulate pollution by 20-30 per cent nationally relative to 2017 levels by 2024 and focused on 102 cities that were not meeting India’s national annual average PM2.5 standard, termed “non-attainment cities.”

In 2022, the Indian government revamped the particulate pollution reduction target for NCAP, setting no national goal but increasing its ambition at the city level.

The availability of reliable, timely and ready-to-use data on air pollution is one area where India can make significant improvements. Although air pollution data is available from Central and state pollution control board websites, it is often not straightforward to access it, and even if it is, it is not in an analysis-ready format and might require significant amounts of pre-processing before it is ready for use. The inability to smoothly access air quality data sets India apart from many other nations with similar or even much smaller air quality monitoring networks.

Thus, making the data sets more accessible and available timely would allow Indian citizens with a variety of skill sets to participate in addressing one of India’s largest public health crises.