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Breathing poison? Air pollution is a leading cause of death in India, reports study

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19 Feb 2019
Breathing poison? Air pollution is a leading cause of death in India, reports study

Air pollution, the invisible killer of present times, is a major global health risk with a greater impact in low and middle-income countries. India alone has 14 of the 15 most polluted cities in the world. A nationwide comprehensive study to understand the level and impact of air pollution in different states was necessary to ensure proper countermeasures. A recent study published in the journal the ‘Lancet Planetary Health’ presents a comprehensive picture of the deaths, diseases and reduced life expectancy due to polluted air in different states of India.

The study was conducted under the India State-Level Disease Burden Initiative, which is a joint approach of the Indian Council of Medical Research, the Public Health Foundation of India, Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, in collaboration with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, with experts from about 100 institutions across India. The study was funded by the Indian Council of Medical Research, Department of Health Research, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The researchers estimated the exposure to air pollution such as ambient particulate matter pollution or outdoor air pollution and household air pollution, and its impact on every state in 2017. In both the cases, the researchers measured the exposure to fine particles called PM2·5 with a diameter of about 3% that of human hair.

“More than three-fourths of the Indian population was exposed to particulate matter over the limit recommended by the National Ambient Air Quality Standards in India”, say the researchers. In 2017, air pollution caused approximately one in eight deaths, with 1.24 million Indians losing their lives to it. Ambient particulate matter pollution killed about 0.67 million people and the rest 0.48 million lost their lives due to household air pollution, informs the study. Around 56% of Indians still use solid fuels such as wood, dung, agricultural residues, coal, and charcoal, which is the major culprit behind household pollution.

More than half of the victims were below the age of 70. The study also mentions that India, containing about 18% of the global population, suffered close to 26% of global premature deaths and health loss due to air pollution.

Although lung disease is seen as the main problem associated with air pollution, the study reports that 38% of the diseases due to air pollution were related to cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. “Another notable aspect of air pollution in India is its contribution to the diseases commonly associated with smoking such as coronary artery disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and lung cancer”, report the researchers.

The air pollution also takes away a significant portion from our life span. “We estimated that if the air pollution level in India was less than the limit causing the loss in health, the average life expectancy in 2017 would have been higher by 1.7 years, with this increase exceeding 2 years in the states of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and Haryana”, say the researchers.

The exposure to and impact of air pollution varies in different states. Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Delhi, and Haryana showed a very high level of particulate matters, with Delhi having the highest. The researchers hope that the state level information will help design specific interventions for each region.

“Reducing the avoidable deaths and diseases from this major environmental risk depends on the rapid deployment of effective policies throughout India that address the specific problems and magnitude of air pollution in each state”, conclude the authors.