India Could Save Lives By Reducing Air Pollution

Air quality is not just an environmental issue but also a public health issue. Yale University’s 2012 Environmental Performance Index (EPI) ranks India last (out of 132 countries) with a performance score of 3.73 (out of 100) on the effects of air pollution on human health. Air pollution is the fifth leading cause of death in India according to the 2010 Global Burden Disease Study (GBD 2010). People should not be worrying that every breath taken negatively affects their quality of life. Many argue that it is a human right to breathe clean air.

The common pollutants that affect health are particulate matter (PM), more specifically black carbon (BC). Generally we look at two types of PM: PM10 consists of coarse particles such as the output from factories, farms, roads, and construction whereas PM2.5 consists of smaller, fine particles such as heavy metals and toxic organic compounds like the emissions coming out of vehicles for example. According to Air Info Now, PM2.5 is more hazardous than PM10 because the smaller particles can travel farther and can stay in the air longer. The main sources of BC are combustion engines (diesel engines for transportation and industrial use) and the burning of biomass (wood from cookstoves) and fossil fuels (coal). According to the Indian think-tank, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) assessment, the urban population is breathing particulate pollution, which exceeds national standards, with one third of the urban population already exposed to critical levels of pollution.

Smog enveloping the presidential palace in New Delhi

Smog enveloping the presidential palace in New Delhi

Over 620,000 premature deaths were related to outdoor pollution alone in 2010. PM has contributed significantly to the decline in health, mainly in the elderly and children. According to a UNICEF funded research study, there is an increase in health issues such as acute respiratory infections (ARI), chronic pulmonary diseases (COPD), asthma, heart diseases, cataract, pneumonia, low birth weight, and tuberculosis all due to indoor air pollution (IAP).

India’s transportation sector has contributed greatly to poor air quality. In urbanized areas, the main contributing factor to outdoor pollution are vehicles. About 76% of vehicles are two-wheelers (SIAM). As for one measure, to tackle the emissions output, several Indian cities adopted the European Fuel Specifications for petrol and diesel. As cities continue to grow and become more populated, the CSE has been pressing for India’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards to be more strictly enforced.

Those are the facts but could India tackle the problem? Awareness and educating the public is critical. Rural communities do not know much about the effects of indoor pollution (BC) coming from their indoor cookstoves. UCSD’s own, Professor Ramanathan is the Principal Investigator of Project Surya, which replaces the traditional highly polluting cookstoves with clean-cooking technologies.  In addition to improve human health and agriculture productivity, Project Surya will “mitigate the regional impacts of global warming by immediately and demonstrably reducing atmospheric concentrations of black carbon, methane, and ozone.” Strategic community planning in urbanized areas, which helps ease traffic congestion, and enacting federal legislation that requires an annual vehicle check can help curb carbon emissions. Hopefully these ideas will soon become a reality.

-Rachelle Lagman, intern

** The views expressed in this article are purely personal and do not represent the Scripps Institution of Oceanography or the University of California San Diego. **


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