Hard slog in smog

India's air pollution deaths spike: Study

Commuters at a bus stop in New Delhi where air purifiers have been installed.
Commuters at a bus stop in New Delhi where air purifiers have been installed. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW DELHI • India's air pollution is causing about 1.1 million people to die prematurely each year, and is surpassing China's as the deadliest in the world, a new study of global air pollution shows.

The number of premature deaths in China caused by dangerous air particles, known as PM2.5, has stabilised globally in recent years.

But it has risen sharply in India, said the report, issued jointly yesterday by the Health Effects Institute in Boston and the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle.

India registered a rise of nearly 50 per cent in premature deaths from particulate matter between 1990 and 2015, said the report.

"You can almost think of this as the perfect storm for India," said University of British Columbia professor Michael Brauer, an author of the study. He cited the confluence of rapid industrialisation, population growth and an ageing population more susceptible to air pollution.

Pollution levels are worsening in India as the country industrialises, but "the idea that policymaking should be led by government is lacking", said Mr Bhargav Krishna, manager for environmental health at the Public Health Foundation of India.

But as air pollution worsened in parts of the world, including South Asia, it has improved in the United States and Europe, the report said, crediting policies to curb emissions, among other things. The report's website provides country-by-country data on pollution levels, and its health and mortality effects.

Environmental regulations in the US and actions by the European Commission have led to substantial progress in reducing fine particulate pollution since 1990, said the report. The US has had a reduction of about 27 per cent in the average annual exposure to fine particulate matter, with smaller declines in Europe.

The particulates of PM2.5 are a fraction of a human hair's width, and can be released from vehicles, particularly with diesel engines, and by industry, as well as from dust. They enter the bloodstream through the lungs, worsening cardiac disease, and raising the risk of stroke and heart failure, besides causing severe respiratory problems.

India has yet to undertake sustained public policy initiatives to reduce pollution, said Mr Gopal Sankaranarayanan, a lawyer who successfully petitioned for the ban of licences to sell fireworks in New Delhi last year. Fireworks during Deepavali contributed to hazardous levels of air pollution last year.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2017, with the headline India's air pollution deaths spike: Study. Subscribe