Pollution led to over 23.5 lakh premature deaths in India in 2019, the highest among all countries globally, according to a new Lancet study.

The majority of air pollution-related deaths (9.8 lakh) in India were caused by ambient PM 2.5 polution — tiny pollution particles in the air that are two and one half microns or less in width, according to the study published in The Lancet Planetary Health journal.

Another 6.1 lakh were due to household air polution, researchers said. The new report is an update to The Lancet Commission on Polution and Health.

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Global figures

Globally, polution of any kind was responsible for nine million deaths in 2019 — equivalent to one in six deaths worldwide. Air polution — both household and ambient — was responsible for the greatest number of deaths at 6.67 million worldwide.

In India, air polution is most severe in the Indo-Gangetic Plain (northern India), where topography and meteorology concentrate polution from energy, mobility, industry, agriculture, and other activities, study lead author Richard Fuller, from Global Alliance on Health and Polution, Geneva, Switzerland said.

Causes of air pollution in India

According to the study, the burning of biomass in households was the single largest cause of air polution deaths in India, followed by coal combustion and crop burning.

Deaths due to traditional polution (household air polution from solid fuels and unsafe water, sanitation, and hand washing) in India have reduced by more than 50 per cent since 2000, the report said.

“India has developed a range of instruments for tackling air polution, including a National Clean Air Program, and in 2019 launched a Commission for Air Quality Management in the National Capital Region. State Polution Control Boards have regulatory powers to impose and enforce emissions standards on polution sources,” the authors of the study noted.

“However, India does not have a strong centralised administrative system to drive its air polution control efforts and consequently improvements in overall air quality have been limited and uneven,” they said.

WHO guidelines

The report noted that India’s PM 2.5 pollution remains well above World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines of 10 microgram per cubic metre in 93 per cent area of the country.

The WHO had recently tightened its health-based global air quality guidelines, lowering the guideline value for PM2.5 from 10 microgram per cubic metre to 5 microgram per cubic metre.

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Economic loss due to pollution

Excess deaths due to polution have led to economic losses totalling USD 46 trillion in 2019 globally, which is 6.2 per cent of global economic output, it said.

Economic losses due to modern forms of polution — ambient particulate matter air polution, ozone pollution, lead exposure, occupational carcinogens, gases, fumes — have increased between 2000 and 2019 in India and are now approximately 1 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP), it said.

It states that although the number of deaths from pollution sources associated with extreme poverty — such as indoor air pollution and water pollution — have decreased, these reductions are offset by increased deaths attributable to industrial pollution such as ambient air pollution and chemical pollution.

(With agency inputs)

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