Air pollution contributed to the death of 16.7 lakh people in India in 2019, with over a lakh of them less than a month old, a new global study by a US-based NGO has revealed. According to the State of Global Air, 2020, a report on global exposure to air pollution, released by Health Effects Institute (HEI) on Wednesday, air pollution is the biggest health risk in India.
“Outdoor and household particulate matter pollution contributed to the death of more than 1,16,000 Indian infants in their first month of life in 2019. More than half of these deaths were associated with outdoor PM2.5 and others were linked to the use of solid fuels such as charcoal, wood, and animal dung for cooking. “Long-term exposure to outdoor and household air pollution contributed to over 1.67 million annual deaths from stroke, heart attack, diabetes, lung cancer, chronic lung diseases, and neonatal diseases, in India in 2019,” the report said.
The report also said there is clear evidence linking air pollution and increased heart and lung disease, creating a growing concern that exposures to high levels of air pollution could exacerbate the effects of COVID-19. Dan Greenbaum, the president of HEI, said an infant’s health is critical to the future of every society and this newest evidence suggests an especially high risk for infants born in south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
“Although there has been a slow and steady reduction in household reliance on poor-quality fuels, air pollution from these fuels continues to be a key factor in the deaths of these youngest infants,” he said. Infants in the first month of life are already at a vulnerable stage. But a growing body of scientific evidence from multiple countries, including recent ICMR-supported studies in India, indicates that particulate air pollution exposure during pregnancy is linked to low birth weight and pre-term birth, the report said.
The new analysis reported in the State of Global Air this year estimates that nearly 21 per cent of neonatal deaths from all causes are attributable to ambient and household air pollution. “Addressing impacts of air pollution on adverse pregnancy outcomes and newborn health is really important for low- and middle-income countries, not only because of the high prevalence of low birth weight, preterm birth, and child growth deficits but because it allows the design of strategic interventions that can be directed at these vulnerable groups,” said Kalpana Balakrishnan, an expert in air pollution and health.
The report said overall, air pollution is now the largest risk factor for death. According to it, South Asian countries, including India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal, featured among the top 10 nations with the highest PM2.5 exposures in 2019. “All of these countries experienced increases in outdoor PM2.5 levels between 2010 and 2019,” the report stated, adding that since 2010, more than 50 million fewer people have been exposed to household air pollution.
“The Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana Household LPG programme and other schemes have helped to dramatically expand access to clean energy, especially for rural households. More recently, the National Clean Air Programme has spurred action on major air pollution sources in cities and states around the country,” it said. This report comes as COVID-19 — a disease for which people with heart and lung disease are particularly at risk of infection and death — has claimed more than 1,10,000 lives in India.
“Although the full links between air pollution and COVID-19 are not yet known, there is clear evidence linking air pollution and increased heart and lung disease creating a growing concern that exposures to high levels of air pollution, during winter months in South Asian countries and East Asia, could exacerbate the effects of COVID-19,” the report stated.