Air pollution causes 1 in 8 deaths in India: Report

NEW DELHI: One in every eight deaths in India is attributable to air pollution, which now contributes to more disease burden than smoking.

In fact, the average life expectancy in India would have been 1.7 years higher if the air pollution level were less than the minimal level, shows the first comprehensive estimates of deaths, disease burden, and life expectancy reduction associated with air pollution in each state of India, released by the Indian Council of Medical Research on Thursday.

Around 77% of India’s population is exposed to outdoor air pollution levels above the National Ambient Air Quality Standards safe limit, the report says.

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States in east and north India had some of the highest levels of both ambient particulate matter and household air pollution, especially Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Jharkhand. Delhi, Haryana, and Punjab in north India had some of the highest ambient particulate matter pollution exposure in the country.

In 2017, air pollution accounted for 12.4 lakh deaths in India, which included 6.7 lakh deaths due to outdoor particulate matter air pollution and 4.8 lakh deaths due to household air pollution. Over half of the deaths due to air pollution were in persons less than 70 years of age, the report said. With 18% of the global population, India suffered 26% of premature mortality and health loss attributable to air pollution globally.

The report, published in the Lancet Planetary Health, assumes significance as it follows several such reports by the World Health Organisation which have already detailed the major health risks posed by foul air in the country.

A special report released by WHO on Wednesday at COP 24 said India can get massive health gains— up to $8 trillion by pursuing global warming limit of 1.5 °C. The UN agency had recently also linked air pollution with increasing child mortality. In 2017, India witnessed 1,10,000 premature deaths of children due to air pollution, highest in the world in the category of children under five years of age.

The India State-Level Disease Burden, conducted jointly by ICMR along with the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) in collaboration with the health ministry, shows a marked variation between the states, with a 12 times difference for ambient particulate matter pollution and 43 times difference for household air pollution.

However, the report recognises the increasing public and policy attention to control air pollution in India. “It is important to have robust estimates of the health impact of air pollution in every state of India in order to have a reference for improving the situation. Household air pollution is reducing in India, facilitated by the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana. There is increasing political momentum in India to address air pollution. The findings reported today systematically document the variations among states, which would serve as a useful guide for making further progress in reducing the adverse impact of air pollution in the country,” Dr Balram Bhargava, secretary health research said.

Systematic and sustained efforts are needed to address the variety of sources contributing to air pollution, which include transport vehicles, construction activity, industry and thermal power emissions, residential and commercial solid fuel use, waste and agriculture burning, diesel generators, and manual road dust sweeping, the report said.

It highlighted that apart from respiratory diseases, pollution also causes ischaemic heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and lung cancer, commonly associated with smoking.

Prof. Randeep Guleria, director, All India Institute of Medical Sciences said, “The upsurge in respiratory problems in the winter months with peak air pollution is well known, but what is now also becoming better understood is that air pollution is a year-round phenomenon particularly in north India which causes health impacts far beyond the seasonal rise of respiratory illnesses. Air pollution is now the leading risk factor for chronic obstructive lung disease in India, and a major contributor to pneumonia and lung cancer. This study provides the most comprehensive estimates of the adverse health impact of outdoor and indoor air pollution in each state of India so far, which would serve as a valuable resource for planning air pollution reduction in all parts of India.”

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