Nearly 40% of India’s population concentrated in Indo-Gangetic Plain to be affected most due to air pollution

The Taj Mahal in Agra on a foggy day. Photo: iStock

India is the world’s second most polluted country where fine particulate air pollution (Particulate Matter 2.5) shortens an average Indian’s life expectancy by 5.3 years, according to the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) report for 2023 by the University of Chicago.

The life expectancy figure mentioned in the report released August 29, 2023, is relative to what it would be if the World Health Organization (WHO) guideline of 5 microgram per cubic metres (µg/m3) was met.

Measured in terms of life expectancy, particulate pollution is the greatest threat to human health in India, taking 5.3 years off the life of the average Indian, the report said.

In contrast, cardiovascular diseases reduce the average Indian’s life expectancy by about 4.5 years, while child and maternal malnutrition reduce life expectancy by 1.8 years, it added.

All of India’s 1.3 billion people live in areas where the annual average particulate pollution level exceeds the WHO guideline, according to the report from Energy Policy Institute of the said university.

About 67.4 per cent of the population live in areas that exceed the country’s own national air quality standard of 40 µg/m3, further state the report findings.

Particulate pollution has increased over time. From 1998 to 2021, average annual particulate pollution increased by 67.7 per cent, further reducing average life expectancy by 2.3 years, the report highlighted.

It added that from 2013 to 2021, 59.1 per cent of the world’s increase in pollution has come from India:

In the most polluted region of the country—the Northern Plains—521.2 million residents or 38.9 per cent of India’s population are on track to lose eight years of life expectancy on average relative to the WHO guideline and 4.5 years relative to the national standard if current pollution levels persist.

“In South Asia, particulate pollution has increased 9.7 per cent from 2013 to 2021. In India, PM2.5 levels rose 9.5 per cent; in Pakistan 8.8 per cent; and in Bangladesh, levels rose by 12.4 per cent over this same time interval,” the report also found.

The AQLI is a pollution index that translates particulate air pollution into its impact on life expectancy.

It was developed by the University of Chicago’s Milton Friedman Distinguished Service Professor in Economics Michael Greenstone and his team at the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago.

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