In­dia’s bad air a top killer

Study blames pol­lu­tion in more than 1 mil­lion deaths


NEW DELHI — A new, grim na­tion­wide study says at least 1 in 8 deaths in In­dia can be at­trib­uted to air pol­lu­tion.

More peo­ple died last year in In­dia be­cause of air pol­lu­tion than from tobacco use, ac­cord­ing to the study pub­lished Thurs­day in the jour­nal Lancet Plan­e­tary Health.

The fact pol­lu­tion is be­hind 1 in 8 deaths is “re­mark­able,” said Lalit Dan­doni, di­rec­tor of the In­dia State Level Dis­ease Bur­den Ini­tia­tive, which con­ducted the study.

“We’ve al­ways thought of it as high, but to see it like that is quite a mas­sive im­pact on health.”

The study found 77% of the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion is ex­posed to lev­els of harm­ful par­tic­u­late mat­ter that ex­ceed the stan­dard set by the In­dian gov­ern­ment. That thresh­old is al­ready four times the limit rec­om­mended by the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Air pol­lu­tion in In­dia is a com­plex phe­nom­e­non. Sources in­clude car ex­haust, in­dus­trial emis­sions, con­struc­tion dust and the burn­ing of crop residues.

The use of wood, char­coal and dried dung for fuel and heat­ing also cre­ates harm­ful pol­lu­tion within ru­ral homes.

The phe­nom­e­non is most in­tense in north­ern In­dia and the coun­try’s cap­i­tal of New Delhi dur­ing the win­ter months. That’s when tem­per­a­tures drop and wind speeds fall, trap­ping pol­lu­tants and cre­at­ing a re­gion-wide haze.

The study ex­am­ined dis­eases for which it found firm ev­i­dence of cau­sa­tion by air pol­lu­tion. Those in­cluded lower res­pi­ra­tory in­fec­tions, chronic in­flam­ma­tory lung dis­ease, heart at­tacks, strokes, di­a­betes and lung cancer.

It es­ti­mated 1.24 mil­lion deaths last year — 12.5% of the to­tal — could be at­trib­uted to air pol­lu­tion.

Just how deadly In­dia’s air pol­lu­tion has be­come is a sub­ject of de­bate. A study pub­lished in Au­gust found In­di­ans on av­er­age lost 1.53 years of life ex­pectancy due to am­bi­ent PM2.5 pol­lu­tion, the par­tic­u­late mat­ter con­sid­ered most harm­ful to hu­man health. Such par­ti­cles mea­sure less than 2.5 mi­crom­e­ters in di­am­e­ter and can lodge deep within the lungs.

That re­search also found three coun­tries where the im­pact of air pol­lu­tion on life ex­pectancy was worse: Bangladesh, Egypt and Pak­istan.

An­other piece of re­search last month es­ti­mated pol­lu­tion had an even more dra­matic im­pact, cut­ting 5.3 years from the av­er­age In­dian’s life span.

Dan­doni, the lead au­thor of the Lancet study pub­lished Thurs­day, said he saw a very thin sil­ver lin­ing — In­dian pol­icy-mak­ers have shown strong in­ter­est in the re­sults, in a marked shift from even a year ago.

“Now a much larger pro­por­tion of the pub­lic and pol­icy-mak­ers are con­vinced that some­thing should be done,” Dan­doni said.

“Of­ten you need data to push you for­ward and we hope that this will be one of those things.”


The Ya­muna River is shrouded in smog in Delhi, In­dia, last month. A study pub­lished this week found one in eight deaths in In­dia can be at­trib­uted to air pol­lu­tion.

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