Last Updated: August 30, 2023, 11:18 IST
Air pollution (PM2.5) poses the most significant risk to human health in India as it reduces the average Indian’s life expectancy by 5.3 years, according to the new findings from the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI). The alarming data from the University of Chicago (EPIC) emphasises that pollution remains the foremost external threat to human health around the world.
Its impact on life expectancy rivals that of smoking, surpassing alcohol use, unsafe water, and even exceeding car crash injuries. If the world were to permanently reduce fine particulate pollution (PM2.5) to meet the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guideline, the average person would add 2.3 years onto their life expectancy—or a combined 17.8 billion life-years saved worldwide, the report adds.
“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,” says Michael Greenstone, the Milton Friedman Distinguished Service Professor in Economics and creator of the AQLI along with colleagues at the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC).
“For the last five years, the AQLI’s local information on air quality and its health consequences has generated substantial media and political coverage, but there is an opportunity to complement this annual information with more frequent—for example, daily—and locally generated data,” he adds.
South Asia — Deadliest Region
According to the AQLI, rising air pollution can cut life expectancy by more than five years per person in South Asia, which is home to the four most polluted countries in the world and nearly a quarter of the global population.
In Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan, the AQLI data reveal that residents are expected to lose about 5 years off their lives on average if the current high levels of pollution persist, and more in the most polluted regions—accounting for more than half of the total life years lost globally due to pollution.
Key takeaways on India
- All of India’s 1.3 billion people live in areas where the annual average particulate pollution level exceeds the WHO guideline; 67.4 percent of the population live in areas that exceed the country’s own national air quality standard of 40 µg/m3.
- 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. 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.
- Particulate pollution has increased over time. From 1998 to 2021, average annual particulate pollution increased by 67.7 percent, further reducing average life expectancy by 2.3 years. From 2013 to 2021, 59.1 percent 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 percent of India’s population are on track to lose 8 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.
- If India were to reduce particulate pollution to meet the WHO guideline, residents in Delhi—India’s capital and most populous city—would gain 11.9 years of life expectancy. In North 24 Parganas—the country’s second most populous district—residents would gain 5.6 years of life expectancy.