The average citizen living in the Indo-Gangetic Plain (IGP) is likely to lose seven-and-a-half years of his/her life at current levels of air pollution, according to an analysis of the Air Quality Life Index conducted by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC).
The study notes a 72 per cent increase in pollution between 1998 and 2016 in the region, which houses 40 per cent of the country’s population. In 1998, the impact of pollution on people’s lives would have been half of what it is today with residents losing 3.7 years of life expectancy. While air pollution is a challenge throughout India, the high levels of particulate pollution in the IGP region of north India, which includes Bihar, Chandigarh, Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, stands out. In 1998, citizens living outside of the IGP region would have seen their lives cut short by 1.2 years compared to what it would have been if air quality met the WHO guideline. That number has grown to 2.6 years—also worsening but much more modest than what has taken place in the IGP.
It is noteworthy that the decreases in life expectancy are the same for both the genders.
The index measures life expectancy in the face of sustained exposure to particulate matter (PM2.5) concentration. This is extremely small atmospheric particulate matter, with diameter less than 2.5 micrometers which can be detected only with an electron microscope.
Explaining how life expectancy clocks against PM2.5 concentration, EPIC responded thus to a query by THE WEEK. “For a given place and year, the AQLI’s life expectancy impact estimate represents the number of years by which a person can expect life expectancy to decrease under sustained exposure to the PM2.5 concentration in that place and year. Therefore, the estimate does change when the PM2.5 concentration in a given place changes across years. For example, in 1998, Mumbai’s annual average PM2.5 concentration was 31 µg/m3. If this PM2.5 concentration were sustained over many years, Mumbaikers could expect to lose 2.1 years on average, compared to if they were instead exposed to the WHO guideline of 10 µg/m3. However, by 2016, Mumbai’s annual average PM2.5 concentration had risen to 40 µg/m3. If this PM2.5 concentration is sustained over many years, Mumbaikers could expect to lose 3.0 years on average.”
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It is noteworthy that from 1998 to 2016 practically all districts in India saw worsening air quality, while many other parts of the world improved their air quality and hence gaining potential life expectancy.
Such reversals have been made possible most particularly by effective use of greater stringency and enforcement of emissions regulations for vehicles, industrial plants, and power plants; investing in more extensive and lower-emissions public transportation and also by increased collection and dissemination of air pollution data to the public.
If India is successful in meeting its goals under the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP), and sustaining pollution reductions of about 25 per cent, the AQLI shows that such improvements in air quality would extend the life expectancy of the average Indian by 1.3 years. Those in the IGP would add about two years onto their lives.