One in eight deaths in India due to air pollution

Indians would have lived 1.7 years more had there been no pollution

[File] Participants run during a half marathon organised by Indian National Security Guard (NSG) on a smoggy morning in New Delhi on November 18 | PTI [File] Participants run during a half marathon organised by Indian National Security Guard (NSG) on a smoggy morning in New Delhi on November 18 | PTI

Pollution is killing us. And now, there’s data to prove it. In a first of its kind analysis, experts have come up with India-specific numbers on the health consequences of air pollution. In 2017, one in eight deaths in India was caused by air pollution, making it a leading risk factor for death in the country. Indians would have lived 1.7 years more had there been no pollution, experts say in their latest paper in the journal, The Lancet.  

Of the total number of deaths, 6.7 lakhs were due to outdoor particulate matter (concentration of PM 2.5 in the air due to industry, vehicles and crop burning) air pollution, and 4.8 lakh deaths due to household air pollution (due to solid cooking fuels). Over half of the deaths due to air pollution were in persons less than 70 years of age. With 18 per cent of the global population, India suffered 26 per cent of premature mortality and health loss attributable to air pollution globally. 

In India, the exposure to PM 2.5 is among the highest in the world, and within the country, Delhiites were the worst affected. This is followed by those living in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana in north India, and then Rajasthan, Jharkhand and West Bengal, said Professor Lalit Dandona, research professor, Public Health Foundation of India, and director, India State Level Disease Burden Initiative. The states of Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Bihar also reported high levels of household air pollution.  

“We have arrived at this data after taking into account all India-specific studies on the issue. More than 70 scientists worked on this data, so it’s a collaborative, balanced effort, with no bias. The fact that air pollution is now more responsible for increasing the disease burden than tobacco use is, will help increase the momentum for control of air pollution within the policy circles,” said Dandona.  

Dr Balram Bhargava, Secretary, Department of Health Research, Union Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, and Director General, ICMR, said that in order to have a reference point for improving the situation, robust estimates of the health impact of air pollution from every state of India were required. The ICMR was also working with hospitals in the country to understand the disease burden—heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – that was caused by air pollution. 

Though the Union ministry of environment, forest and climate change is taking some measures to deal with the situation, experts concede that more needs to be done. “Several initiatives are being taken and the government is aware of the task ahead. The big challenge lies in adoption of renewable energy and cleaner fuels, enhancing public transport options and encouraging e-waste management. Though the Centre is making several efforts, it is the states who have to implement the specific solutions. For instance, the Delhi government has not been able to control the fire situation at the landfill sites such as Bhalswa and Okhla that contributes to air pollution,” said Dr Tushar Joshi, Advisor, Environmental Health, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. Joshi said that experts were working on creating comprehensive emission inventories that would serve as a ready listing of the quantity and the source of each pollutant released in the air. 

Both Joshi and Bhargava also added that given the rise in pollution, people were resorting to masks and air purifiers, but there was no data to suggest that these worked in the long-term. “Masks won’t work for those with beards, double-chin. Using masks is more of a feel-good thing, and there’s no data yet to suggest their benefits,” said Bhargava. As for air purifiers, Joshi said that the long-term effect of air purifiers was still being studied. “It is still being studied as to what the effects of stepping into a room with air purifiers and then back to a polluted environment might have on the body, and whether it may be adversely affecting the body’s natural tolerance to pollution,” said Joshi.