Lethal Air Pollution


India must take effective measures to clean up the air to reduce mortality

A global study, titled the State of Global Air 2020, has found that more than 1.16 lakh infants in India died of complications linked to air pollution in the year 2019. The infants fell victim in the first month of their life as their mothers were exposed to outdoor and household particulate matter pollution, which led to them being born either low birth-weight or preterm birth. The study was conducted by the Health Effects Institute in collaboration with development banks, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the industry and non-government foundations. Across the world air pollution killed 4.76 lakh newborns in 2019, the study found. The biggest hotspots for infant deaths on account of air pollution were found in India and Sub-Saharan Africa. Nearly two-thirds of the deaths came from inhalation of noxious fumes from cooking fuels. Incidentally, Sub-Saharan Africa accounted for the death of 2.36 lakh infants (nearly half of total deaths). The study corroborates other findings that have established strong links between mothers’ exposures during pregnancy to air pollution to infant mortality.

The State of Global Air 2020 holds significance as it is the first-ever comprehensive analysis of air pollution’s global impact on newborns. The evidence is clear that air pollution has emerged as the largest risk factor for death. Though progress has been made in reducing household air pollution exposures, the levels of outdoor PM2.5 (particulate matter) remained stagnant or have increased. More than half of the deaths were associated with outdoor PM2.5 and others were linked to use of solid fuels such as charcoal, wood, and animal dung for cooking, which is still used in many Indian households. What is alarming is the finding that long-term exposure to outdoor and household air pollution contributed to over 16.7 lakh deaths annually particularly from stroke, heart attack, diabetes, lung cancer, chronic lung diseases, and neonatal diseases in India in 2019. That so many infants died due to air pollution despite the implementation of Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana Household LPG programme and other schemes aimed at reducing air pollution should be a matter of serious concern for the Modi government.

An earlier study conducted by the World Health Organisation had found that around 93% of the world’s children under the age of 15 years breathe air daily that is so polluted that it puts their health and development at serious risk. The WHO estimated that in 2016, around 6 lakh children died from acute lower respiratory infections caused by polluted air. When pregnant women were exposed to polluted air, they were more likely to give birth prematurely, and have small, low birth-weight children. Air pollution also impacted neurodevelopment and cognitive ability and could trigger asthma and childhood cancer. Children exposed to high levels of air pollution might be at greater risk for chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease later in life. The WHO study had found that children living at the ground level were particularly vulnerable to the effects of air pollution because they breathe more rapidly than the adults and hence absorb more pollutants. 

Given the grim situation revealed by the studies, it is absolutely necessary that the health ministries of the central government as well as state governments take steps in coordination to keep air pollution under control. Although air pollution in Goa is not as bad as in some other parts of the country, the problems exist in the mining areas and the port town of Vasco and along the routes on which ore and coal is transported with hundreds of cases linked to air pollution having been reported. The latest study has said that although there were no full links between air pollution and COVID-19, there was clear evidence linking air pollution to increased incidence of heart and lung diseases, causing a growing concern. Vasco and surrounding areas have reported the highest numbers of COVID-19 deaths in the state. The State of Global Air 2020 study has pointed out that air pollution led to 67 lakh deaths in the world, making it the fourth leading cause of death behind high blood pressure, tobacco use, and dietary risks. India must take comprehensive and effective measures to reduce air pollution.