WHO’s stark message on air quality — and what India must do

Synopsis: Air pollution is worsening in India. We need to raise our air quality standards in line with recently released WHO guidelines and ensure strict compliance while transitioning to a cleaner energy model.

Introduction 

In its recent air quality guidelines (AQGs), the WHO said that the impact of poor air quality on public health is at least twice as bad as previously estimated.

Globally, it is estimated that exposure to PM2.5 kills 3.3 million people every year, most of them in Asia. 

India has 37 of the world’s 50 most polluted cities. Still, India’s air quality standards are not strict. For instance, its standards for PM2.5 and PM10 are 60 and 100 µg/m3 respectively (over 24 hours), while the WHO’s new standards are 15 and 45 µg/m3 (over 24 hours). 

Why India should be concerned about air pollution? 

Worst mortality rates: India’s air pollution-influenced mortality rates are among the worst. The Global Burden of Disease estimates that India lost 1.67 million lives in 2019 directly as a result of breathing polluted air, or because of pre-existing conditions exacerbated by air pollution.

Uttar Pradesh had the biggest share at 3.4 lakh, Maharashtra had 1.3 lakh, and Rajasthan 1.1 lakh.

Lower life expectancy: The average life expectancy in Delhi is 6.4 years lower than the national average of 69.4, and the number is starting to fall for even coastal cities like Mumbai and Chennai. 

What are the harmful effects of the air-pollution? 

On health 

-The health impacts of PM2.5 exposure include lung cancer, cerebrovascular disease, ischaemic heart disease and acute lower respiratory illness, besides exacerbating ailments like depression.  

-Exposure to ozone has been linked to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).  

-Prolonged exposure to air pollutants affects newborns and babies still in the womb. Mothers may have to deal with the trauma of premature deliveries and stillbirths. Foetuses face increased risk of being born with lungs that are not yet developed to function properly, and congenital defects that can impact the rest of their lives.  

On economy – A 2019 study found that India’s poor air quality erased 3% of its GDP for the year and caused a loss of nearly Rs 7 lakh crore (~USD 95 billion). The reason being employees failing to show up at work, far fewer people stepping out to buy goods, and foreign tourists staying away after health warnings.  Official figures indicate a loss of 820,000 jobs in the tourism industry and 64% of businesses squarely blame air pollution.

On infrastructure- Air pollution affected solar panels as ground-level smog and the particulate matter chokes their power output. 

On agriculture– Several studies have noted a 25% drop in crop yield for wheat and rice after prolonged exposure to PM and ozone.

What is the way forward? 

India needs to revisit its National Ambient Air Quality Standards, revise them down to WHO levels, and implement them without exception.  

We need to conduct nationwide studies and gather raw health data on air pollution to get a picture of how many Indians, regardless of age, gender and occupation, are suffering under bad air.  

– The China example- China handled the issue by prioritising zero-emissions transport, staggered use of internal combustion engine vehicles, and by enforcing prevention on point sources of pollution with few exceptions

-Cleaner energy- India’s National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) can help to find solutions. States like Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Telangana have introduced policies to speed up their market shares, and Electric Vehicles’ year-on-year sales are increasing. 

-Better monitoring– We need to expand the country’s air quality monitoring network. We can use new low-cost monitors instead of CPCB monitors which are costly. The new monitors capture readings for not only PM2.5 and 10 but also gases like NO2, SO2, methane, and secondary volatile organic compounds. The Centre and state governments must boost the density of the Continuous Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Stations (CAAQMS) network to fully inform the science behind the corrective measures. 

Source: This post is based on the article “An Expert Explains: WHO’s stark message on air quality — and what India must do” published in The Indian Express on 7th October 2021. 

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