While most of the world breathes unsafe air shaving off two years off global life expectancy, the report noted that air pollution is the greatest threat to human health in India, reducing life expectancy by five years whereas child and maternal malnutrition reduces it by about 1. 8 years and smoking reduces by an average 1. 5 years.
As per AQLI, in the IndoGangetic plains of northern India, 510 million residents, nearly 40% of India’s population, are on track to lose 7. 6 years of life expectancy on average if current pollution levels persist. In the case of Delhi, the world’s most polluted capital, people would lose 10 years of their lives in a business-as-usual scenario of not adhering to the new WHO standards.
India had in 2019 launched its National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) with the goal to reduce particulate pollution by 20-30%, relative to 2017 levels, by 2024. The NCAP targets are non-binding.
“However, if India were to achieve and sustain this reduction, it would lead to remarkable health improvements. According to the AQLI, a permanent, nationwide reduction of 25%, the midpoint of NCAP’s target range, would increase India’s average national life expectancy by 1. 4 years, and by 2. 6 years for residents of the national capital territory of Delhi,” said the report.
Analysing the data till 2020, the EPIC report said about 44% of the world’s increase in pollution has come from India since 2013, and noted that the air pollution continued to increase in south Asia — the most affected region of the world — dur- ing the first year of the pandemic despite Covid lockdowns. Since 1998, India’s average annual particulate pollution (PM2. 5) has increased by over 61%.
In 2019, over 7 million deaths annually were linked to exposure of various pollutants in the world with analysts claiming that around 80% of deaths attributed to PM 2. 5 exposure. Among all classical air pollutants, inhalable PM 2. 5 is considered the most hazardous as it gets deposited in lungs through breathing and causes serious respiratory problems.
The EPIC’s AQLI converts air pollution concentrations into their impact on life expectancy, noting that the impact of air pollution on life expectancy is comparable to that of smoking, more than three times that of alcohol use and unsafe water, six times that of HIV/AIDS, and 89 times that of conflict and terrorism.
Referring to the new benchmark, the EPIC report said the entire Indian population lives in areas where the annual average particulate pollution level exceeds the WHO guideline. “Over 63% of the population live in areas that exceed the country’s own national air quality standard of 40 µg/m3,” it said while noting that Indians would have gained 1. 6 years if its national standards were met.
“Now that our understanding of pollution’s impact on human health has improved, there is a stronger case for governments to prioritise it as an urgent policy issue,” says AQLI director Hrista Hasenkopf.