Delhi residents could lose ten years of life due to air pollution

India's cities are some of the most polluted in the world, the Air Quality Life Index report says

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Indians are on average losing five years of their life to toxic air, a new study has found, the latest health warning about the growing air pollution crisis in the world’s second-most populous country.

The Air Quality Life Index produced by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago found that Indians were breathing air with particulate matter that exceeded World Health Organisation levels.

The WHO considers five micrograms per cubic metre of particulate matter (PM2.5) — tiny particles of pollutants in the air that enter the human lungs and bloodstream — as the safe level.

The study is based on data from 2020 and claims average annual particulate levels were roughly 11 times higher than the global agency’s safe levels — which were revised from 10 to five micrograms of particulate matter last year.

India’s own air quality safe levels are 40 micrograms per cubic metre.

The South Asian nation with a population of 1.3 billion is the world’s second most polluted country, according to an earlier report by AQLI.

At least 62 of the Indian cities were among the 100 most polluted places globally in air pollution rankings by Swiss firm IQAir’s report World Air Quality earlier in March.

“Of all the countries in the world, India faces the highest health burden of air pollution due to its high particulate pollution concentrations and large population,” the report, that was released on Tuesday, said.

“Measured in terms of life expectancy, particulate pollution is the greatest threat to human health in India, reducing life expectancy by five years. In contrast, smoking reduces the average life expectancy by 1.5 years,” it added.

The report further said the area in the vast Indo-Gangetic plains of northern India, where some 510 million residents live, was exposed to air pollution levels that could shave off 7.6 years of life expectancy on average.

But the most worrying observation came from Delhi — the world’s most polluted capital — where residents were expected to lose 10 years of their lives if pollution levels continue to persist above the WHO mark.

The city is home to 22 million people, who suffer from the scourge of air pollution throughout the year. However, toxic air levels spike during winter, when winds push smoke from stubble burning on farmland into the city and shroud it under a blanket of smog.

It had PM 2.5 of 96.4 micrograms per cubic metre as an annual average, more than 20 times the safe limit of the WHO at five micrograms per cubic metre.

Sunil Dahiya, an analyst with the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, a non-profit think tank researching air pollution, said that the report is a “reminder” that the government was not doing enough to curb the menace and reduce health risks.

A report by the British medical journal The Lancet in 2020 said India lost 1.67 million people to toxic air in 2019.

India enacted the five-year National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) with an aim to control air pollution levels in 120 cities and to promote better quality by identifying cost-effective measures to reduce emissions from all known sources by 2024.

The report said that if the NCAP policies are implemented and the goals are achieved, India’s life expectancy can be increased by 1.6 years.

However, experts such as Mr Dahiya say that such policies are hardly followed on the ground. There has been very little or no emission-load reduction, including fossil fuel reduction — one of the major causes of pollution.

“We have seen over the last few years, before Covid, NCAP was announced by the government," Mr Dahiya told The National. "There was intent and acknowledgement that air pollution is a leading risk factor."

“Although, when it comes to actual implementation of any policy, there is a big difference. We don’t even have a single city or region that has come up with fossil fuel consumption cap, so our government should step up and change the approach to more emission-load reduction to curb pollution."

Updated: June 15, 2022, 3:43 PM