More than two years ago, Greenpeace warned that India was facing an “apocalypse” because of air pollution. This week, we are given yet another warning about the public health catastrophe brewing in the air and festering in Indians’ lungs. This is thanks to the 2019 State of Global Air Report.
In 2017, India lost 1.2 million lives to air pollution according to the report. The high death toll in India from pollution makes it one of the country’s biggest health risks, even ahead of smoking. Almost five million lives worldwide were cost by the manifold health complications of long-term exposure to polluted air, both indoors and outdoors.
“For children, the impact on lifespan is even worse. South Asian children born today will lose two years and six months of their lives to pollution.”
Indoor and outdoor pollution pose major health risks. In India, pollution in all its forms drives increased rates of a plethora of noncommunicable diseases and shortens overall life expectancy by more than a year and a half.
For children, the impact on lifespan is even worse. South Asian children born today will lose two years and six months of their lives to pollution, the report claims. This is far from the first warning about the dangers to child health from pollution. Earlier this year, a World Health Organisation (WHO) report revealed how pollution kills 700,000 children under five worldwide every year because of exposure to toxic air pollution.
“Pollution has far-reaching impacts on public health.
India’s high burden of pollution-related deaths should not come as a surprise. The country is home to seven of the world’s ten most polluted cities. The devastating toll calamities such as pollution are taking on health is apparent in research published earlier this year suggesting India is the worst country in the world when measured in terms of its citizens’ environmental health.
Pollution has far-reaching impacts on public health. Links can be drawn between India’s high levels of pollution and its diabetes crisis. Research has suggested pollution increases the risk of developing dementia. Pollution is considered to be driving increased rates of respiratory illnesses among non-smokers such as lung cancer.
In the years to come, pollution can even negatively affect the sustenance Indians can avail. Already pollution affects India’s groundwater quality, with many Indian rivers becoming too polluted to sustain life. And in the coming years, nutritional deficiencies could afflict tens of millions of Indians because of carbon dioxide pollution and its effect on the nation’s crops.
“This is not to say policymakers haven’t responded to the pollution crisis in India.”
Numerous factors influence India’s pollution crisis.
The use of unsafe biofuels for indoor cooking is a major drive of pollution-related deaths in rural India, which accounts for 75 percent of such fatalities. Crop burning, which sees paddy field farmers in northern states incinerate as many as eight million metric tonnes of crop waste every year, causes and exacerbates annual pollution crises in a number of states across the north. And the impact of heavy industry cannot be understated.
This is not to say policymakers haven’t responded to the pollution crisis in India.
“Unless meaningful improvements are made, India faces its rate of pollution-related deaths tripling by 2050.”
A National Clean Air Program seeks to effect a 35 percent reduction in pollution levels across 102 cities within the next three years and a fifty percent reduction within the next five. New standards to mitigate the impact of vehicular emissions and a program to provide cleaner fuels to households dependent on unsafe cooking fuels are other steps taken towards reducing pollution levels.
These policies are welcome, but their efficacy remains to be seen. Unless meaningful improvements are made, India faces its rate of pollution-related deaths tripling by 2050. The urgency of responding to air pollution is apparent, and we are reminded as such every time new statistics are released, new reports are issued and every time there is a protest. It is vital to react to India’s environmental crises, of which pollution looms large – choking India’s air, its citizens, and its children.
“The State of Global Air Report, 2019”, upon which this article reports, can be accessed here. The State of Global Air is a collaboration of the Health Effects Institute and Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation with expert input from the University of British Columbia.