In­dia, China need cleaner air just to keep death rate steady


Never mind low­er­ing the rate of death from air pol­lu­tion in In­dia and China. Just keep­ing those rates steady will de­mand ur­gent ac­tion to clear the skies, ac­cord­ing to a new re­port pub­lished Tues­day.

The find­ings — gleaned from a new global model for how changes in out­door air pol­lu­tion could trans­late into changes in dis­ease rates — high­light a de­mo­graphic quirk of Asia’s two fastest-grow­ing economies, where young pop­u­la­tions have so far kept pol­lu­tion­re­lated mor­tal­ity rel­a­tively low even amid break­neck eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment at steep en­vi­ron­men­tal cost.

Both coun­tries have looked to coal-fired power plants to boost elec­tric­ity and fuel growth. Both have seen ex­plo­sions in the num­ber of ve­hi­cles on the roads. And both have hun­dreds of mil­lions of im­pov­er­ished peo­ple still re­ly­ing on burn­ing wood, kerosene or what­ever they can grab at the garbage dump to build fires for cook­ing or keep­ing warm on win­ter nights.

But as their pop­u­la­tions age, more peo­ple will be­come sus­cep­ti­ble to con­di­tions such as heart dis­ease, can­cer or stroke that are caused or ex­ac­er­bated by air pol­lu­tion. Al­ready, Asian na­tions led by In­dia and China ac­count for 72 per­cent of the to­tal 3.7 mil­lion an­nual deaths from out­door air pol­lu­tion — more than AIDS and malaria com­bined.

Nei­ther na­tion is any­where near meet­ing air qual­ity guide­lines set by the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion. In In­dia, pol­lu­tion lev­els are still on the rise.

“The im­pact of par­tic­u­late air pol­lu­tion on pre­ventable deaths is far larger than most peo­ple real- ize,” said Howard Frumkin, dean of the Univer­sity of Washington’s School of Public Health and an en­vi­ron­men­tal health spe­cial­ist who was not in­volved in the study.

In fact, if the en­tire world brought pol­lu­tion lev­els down to WHO rec­om­mended lev­els, 2.1 mil­lion pre­ma­ture deaths could be pre­vented each year, ac­cord­ing to the study, which was pub­lished in the jour­nal En­vi­ron­men­tal Science & Tech­nol­ogy.

2.1 Mil­lion Pre­ma­ture Deaths

In­dia and China would need to re­duce av­er­age lev­els of tiny, in­hal­able par­tic­u­late mat­ter called PM 2.5 by 20 to 30 per­cent merely to off­set their de­mo­graphic changes and keep mor­tal­ity rates steady, the study shows. That still won’t get them to the WHO’s rec­om­men­da­tion of 10 mi­cro­grams per cu­bic me­ter, but it could help avoid sev­eral hun­dred thou­sand pre­ma­ture deaths ev­ery year.

“The op­por­tu­nity for pre­vent­ing pre­ma­ture deaths by clean­ing up the air is enor­mous ... es­pe­cially in China and In­dia, where pol­lu­tion lev­els are high and the ex­posed pop­u­la­tions large and densely con­cen­trated,” Frumkin said.

Ac­tu­ally re­duc­ing pol­lu­tion­re­lated mor­tal­ity in China, In­dia and other coun­tries with ex­treme pol­lu­tion would re­quire ma­jor ac­tion. Cut­ting mor­tal­ity in half, for ex­am­ple, would take an av­er­age 68 per­cent re­duc­tion in PM 2.5 from 2010 lev­els, ac­cord­ing to the study. If pol­lu­tion lev­els were to re­main sta­ble, In­dian mor­tal­ity would go up 21 per­cent and China’s 23 per­cent.

Mas­sive Re­duc­tions, or

Rock­et­ing Deaths

“These pop­u­la­tions are get­ting older, and the dis­eases that air pol­lu­tion af­fects will be­come more im­por­tant,” said the study’s lead au­thor, Josh Apte, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of en­vi­ron­men­tal en­gi­neer­ing at the Univer­sity of Texas, Austin.

The study — one of the first to tackle the ques­tion of how much cleaner a coun­try’s air needs to be to re­duce pre­ma­ture mor­tal­ity — com­bines global satel­lite pol­lu­tion data, ground pol­lu­tion mea­sures, pop­u­la­tion sta­tis­tics and glob­ally rec­og­nized mor­tal­ity rates for five key dis­eases for which air pol­lu­tion is a risk fac­tor in or­der to cal­cu­late the po­ten­tial ben­e­fits from hit­ting cer­tain pol­lu­tion-re­duc­tion tar­gets.

The WHO last month de­clared air pol­lu­tion the world’s largest sin­gle en­vi­ron­men­tal health risk, and pledged to come up with a global plan to start clean­ing up the skies within a year. Ul­ti­mately, though, it will be up to na­tional gov­ern­ments to act.

While Asia’s de­vel­op­ing coun­tries are con­sid­ered to­day’s big air pol­luters, the global mor­tal­ity study shows that even less-pol­luted Western na­tions could col­lec­tively save up to a half-mil­lion peo­ple from pre­ma­ture death each year by cut­ting PM 2.5 con­cen­tra­tions by 25 per­cent.

The West Can Save Lives, Too

“Ev­ery­body thinks that the air in the West is fine. But there are rel­a­tively large health ben­e­fits that can be found from fur­ther clean­ing the air in al­ready clean lo­ca­tions,” said Ju­lian Mar­shall, a co-au­thor and as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of en­vi­ron­men­tal en­gi­neer­ing at the Univer­sity of Min­nesota. “It’s a re­minder that there still are health ef­fects from air pol­lu­tion” even at low lev­els.

“In cleaner parts of the world, air pol­lu­tion still has a sig­nif­i­cant toll, but it is hard to vi­su­al­ize,” said Bert Brunekreef, di­rec­tor of the In­sti­tute for Risk As­sess­ment Sciences at the Univer­sity of Utrecht in the Nether­lands, who was not in­volved in the study. “On death cer­tifi­cates, no­body men­tions air pol­lu­tion as a cause of death.”

Both In­dia and China have re­cently tough­ened their PM 2.5 stan­dards, though nei­ther re­li­ably meets those lim­its. In­dia has 13 cities listed in the world’s 20 most pol­luted. Another three are in neigh­bor­ing Pak­istan, and two in Bangladesh.

China, once the world’s poster child for air pol­lu­tion, is much fur­ther along in clear­ing its air, with so­phis­ti­cated air mon­i­tor­ing that warns of haz­ardous days, dur­ing which schools may be closed, in­dus­tries shut down and gov­ern­ment ve­hi­cles taken off the roads.

In­dia has no such emer­gency pro­to­cols. Anti- pol­lu­tion laws re­main widely ig­nored and un­en­forced. Its fledg­ling air qual­ity in­dex cov­ers only a few cities with a patchy net­work of mon­i­tors that are of­ten on the fritz.

Ex­perts said the global mor­tal­ity study of­fers im­por­tant in­sights and warn­ings too of­ten ig­nored, even if its con­clu­sions are gen­er­al­ized and it doesn’t con­sider other re­lated mor­tal­ity causes, like smok­ing or in­door soot from cook­ing stoves.

Frumkin noted that while the “solid work” made clear some health ben­e­fits of im­prov­ing air qual­ity, the same ac­tions “dove­tail closely with steps we need to take to ad­dress cli­mate change,” such as switch­ing from burn­ing fos­sil fu­els for energy to us­ing so­lar- and wind-pow­ered tech­nol­ogy. “Then we re­duce green­house gas emis­sions, slow cli­mate change, and thereby pro­tect health in myr­iad ways.”

(Left) Smoke rises from the chim­neys of brick kilns on the out­skirts of New Delhi, Tues­day, June 16. Just keep­ing death rates from air pol­lu­tion in China and In­dia steady will de­mand ur­gent clean-up, a re­port said. (Right) La­bor­ers work on a smoggy day in Bei­jing, Tues­day, June 16.


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