Air pollution leads the list of top five threats to life expectancy in India, followed by cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, tobacco use and maternal and child malnutrition. Across the world, air pollution poses the greatest external risk to human health, but its impact on life expectancy is concentrated in just six countries, including India. These are the latest findings of the University of Chicago's Energy Policy Institute (EPIC) in its annual Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) report.
The average person worldwide would add 2.3 years to their life expectancy, if PM2.5 levels, or pollution caused by fine particulate matter, was permanently reduced to meet World Heath Organisation (WHO) guidelines. In India, particulate pollution takes about 5.3 years off the life of the average Indian. 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. In Delhi, the most populous and the most polluted city, each resident would live about 11.9 years longer if the air were clean.
The new data is yet to be peer-reviewed but was published on the AQLI website on Tuesday. This is the fifth year that the report is being published. “The impact of life expectancy is comparable to that of smoking, more than three times that of alcohol use and unsafe water, and over five times that of transport injuries like car crashes,” the report says.
“Three-quarters of air pollution's impact on global life expectancy occurs in just six countries, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, China, Nigeria and Indonesia, where people lose one to more than six years off their lives because of the air they breathe,” said Michael Greenstone, the Milton Friedman Distinguished Service Professor in Economics and one of the creators of the AQLI at the University of Chicago in a media release.
Despite research that proves the human cost of air pollution, few countries actively promote or fund programmes for clean air. While there is a large global fund for HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis that annually disburses $4 billion toward the issues, there is no equivalent set of coordinated resources for air pollution, the report observes.
Even air quality data is hard to come by in a number of countries in Asia and Africa, the researchers noted. In India, for instance, the national air national air quality standard is 40 µg/m3, far higher than the WHO guideline of 5 µg/m3, yet no city in the country meets these relaxed standards.
The India fact sheet notes that all of India’s 1.3 billion people live in areas where the annual average particulate pollution level exceeds the WHO limit, and 67.4% of the population lives in areas that exceed the national air quality standard. “Even in the least polluted district in the region, Pathankot in Punjab, particulate pollution is more than seven times the WHO limit, taking 3.1 years off life expectancy if current levels persist,” it said.
“The availability of reliable, timely and ready-to-use data on air pollution is one area where India can make significant improvements. Although air pollution data is available from Central and State pollution control board websites, it’s often not straightforward to access it… Making these datasets more accessible and available on a more timely basis would allow Indian citizens with a variety of skill sets to participate in addressing one of India’s largest public health crises,” the India fact sheet of the report notes.