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Explained: India topped air pollution death toll in 2019, says report

Posted By : Abhijeet Singh   |   Date : May 18 2022 7:14 AM

Explained: India topped air pollution death toll in 2019, says report
Globally, air pollution alone contributes to 66.7 lakh deaths, according to the report, which updates a previous analysis from 2015.

Air pollution was responsible for 16.7 lakh deaths in India in 2019, or 17.8% of all deaths in the country that year. This is the largest number of air-pollution-related deaths of any country, according to a recent report on pollution and health published in The Lancet Planetary Health.

Globally, air pollution alone contributes to 66.7 lakh deaths, according to the report, which updates a previous analysis from 2015. Overall, pollution was responsible for an estimated 90 lakh deaths in 2019 (equivalent to one in six deaths worldwide), a number that has remained unchanged since the 2015 analysis. Ambient air pollution was responsible for 45 lakh deaths, and hazardous chemical pollutants for 17 lakh, with 9 lakh deaths attributable to lead pollution.

Pollution in India

The majority of the 16.7 lakh air pollution-related deaths in India – 9.8 lakh — were caused by PM2.5 pollution, and another 6.1 lakh by household air pollution. Although the number of deaths from pollution sources associated with extreme poverty (such as indoor air pollution and water pollution) has decreased, these reductions are offset by increased deaths attributable to industrial pollution (such as ambient air pollution and chemical pollution), the report noted.

“The World Health Organization (WHO) has substantially tightened its health-based global air quality guidelines, lowering the guideline value for PM2.5 from 10 micrograms per cubic metre to 5. This means that there is hardly any place in India which follows the WHO norms,” Dr Sundeep Salvi, Chair for Chronic Respiratory Diseases of the Global Burden of Diseases study (GBD-19), told The Indian Express. He was not associated with the latest report in The Lancet Planetary Health.

According to the report, air pollution is most severe in the Indo-Gangetic Plain. This area contains New Delhi and many of the most polluted cities. Burning of biomass in households was the single largest cause of air pollution deaths in India, followed by coal combustion and crop burning.

The number of deaths remains high despite India’s considerable efforts against household air pollution, including through the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana programme. India has developed a National Clean Air Programme, and in 2019 launched a Commission for Air Quality Management in the National Capital Region. However, India does not have a strong centralised administrative system to drive its air pollution control efforts and consequently improvements in overall air quality have been limited and uneven, the report has said.

Professor Kalpana Balakrishnan, Dean (Research), Sri Ramachandra Institute of Higher Education and Research (Deemed to be University), Chennai, and one of the authors of the report, stressed the need for a radical shift in the approach to pollution management efforts.

“In India, we need integrated surveillance platforms for health and exposure surveillance. Population exposure surveillance via biological and environmental monitoring can inform risk attributions within health programmes already in place to reduce the burden of maternal and child health as well as non-communicable diseases. Impacts from lead as shown in the report, that impacts children’s IQ, really drive home the point of irreversible long-term damage for multiple generations. Without surveillance at scale it is impossible to know what worked and what didn’t,” she told The Indian Express.

Lead pollution

Dr Salvi too cited the implications of lead pollution. “An estimated 9 lakh people die every year globally due to lead pollution and this number is likely to be an underestimate. Earlier the source of lead pollution was from leaded petrol which was replaced with unleaded petrol. However the other sources of lead exposure include unsound recycling of lead-acid batteries and e-waste without pollution controls, spices that are contaminated with lead, pottery glazed with lead salts and lead in paint and other consumer products,” he said.

“Globally more than 80 crore children (India alone contributes to 27.5 crore children) are estimated to have blood lead concentrations that exceed 5 µg/dL — which was, until 2021, the concentration for intervention established by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This concentration has now been reduced to 3.5 µg/dL,” he said.

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