Explained: WHO’s clear air quality message – and what India needs to do

By updating its already strict Air Quality Guidelines (AQG), the WHO last month sent a clear message: that the impact of poor air quality on public health is at stake. less twice as serious as expected. India has 37 of the 50 most polluted cities in the world, despite more lax air quality standards. For example, its standards for PM2.5 and PM10 are 60 and 100 µg / m3 (over 24 hours), respectively, while the new WHO standards are 15 and 45 µg / m3 (over 24 hours). .

Unsurprisingly, death rates from air pollution in India are among the worst. The Global Burden of Disease estimates that India lost 1.67 million lives in 2019 directly from breathing in polluted air, or from pre-existing conditions exacerbated by air pollution. Uttar Pradesh had the largest share with 3.4 lakh, Maharashtra 1.3 lakh and Rajasthan 1.1 lakh.

Delhi’s average life expectancy is 6.4 years lower than the national average of 69.4 years, and that number is starting to drop even for coastal cities like Mumbai and Chennai. Globally, it is estimated that exposure to PM2.5 kills 3.3 million people each year, most of them in Asia.

India’s predicament

The problem is that our economic growth is based on fossil fuels. Coal, oil and natural gas represent about 75% of our electricity production and over 97% of road transport, but they come at the cost of significant emissions of CO, SO2, NO2, ozone and particles. And this is where the predicament lies: India prides itself on being the fastest growing large economy, and changing the way we generate electricity and restricting gasoline and diesel vehicles is considered as a brake on economic progress. At the same time, however, the ever-increasing needs for energy and personal vehicles are exacerbating the public health crisis. There is now almost a feeling among people that toxic air is just a part of city life.

The murderous threat

It’s hard to overstate the gravity of the situation. The health impacts of exposure to PM2.5 now include lung cancer, cerebrovascular disease, ischemic heart disease and acute lower respiratory disease, in addition to exacerbating illnesses like depression. Ozone exposure has been linked to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Prolonged exposure to air pollutants affects newborns and babies still in the womb. While mothers may have to deal with the trauma of preterm deliveries and stillbirths, fetuses face an increased risk of being born with lungs that are not yet developed to function properly and birth defects that can impact the rest of their life. Simply put, air pollution is a threat to generations even before they are born.

Losses to the economy

A 2019 study found that India’s appalling air quality wiped out 3% of its GDP for the year and caused a loss of nearly 7 lakh crore (~ US $ 95 billion). Most of the losses were due to employees not showing up for work, far fewer people going out to buy goods, and foreign tourists staying away after health warnings. Official figures show a loss of 820,000 jobs in the tourism industry and 64% of companies blame the air pollution squarely.

Poor air quality has been found to compensate for 67% of the cost advantage of using solar panels over the power grid, as ground level smog and particulates suffocate their power output. . Additionally, several studies have noted a 25% drop in wheat and rice crop yields after prolonged exposure to PM and ozone.

Go forward

It is a crisis that affects everyone. What India needs to do without delay is to review its national ambient air quality standards, revise them to WHO levels and implement them without exception. Unfortunately, the new WHO guidelines are not legally binding, so a crucial first step is to conduct nationwide epidemiological studies and collect large raw health data on air pollution as a risk factor. Without it, it would be difficult to get an idea of ​​how many Indians, regardless of age, gender and occupation, suffer from bad air and would make efforts to tackle the problem meaningless.

More importantly, authorities must recognize that Indians are no less susceptible to air pollution – so continuing to enforce more lax standards for the good of the industry places a deadly burden on the average resident.

The example of China

China has gone through a similar phase. As it turned into a global manufacturing hub, its cities were subjected to manic air pollution and Beijing was known for its smog. But it has managed to tackle the problem, even though after 10 years it is still not WHO compliant. It has prioritized zero-emission transport, phased out the use of internal combustion engine vehicles, and imposed a strict crackdown on point sources of pollution that allows few, if any, exceptions. What is most impressive is that the country is now the largest market for electric vehicles and clean energy, its per capita income has never been higher and its influence as an economic power is still on. on the rise. It debunks the myth that tackling air pollution hinders economic growth.

Cleaner energy

India’s National Clean Air Program (NCAP) is trying to integrate such solutions, but electric mobility and clean energy in India are not yet dominant in their respective sectors. The good news is that states like Gujarat, Maharashtra and Telangana have policies in place to accelerate their market share, and electric vehicle sales are posting record year-over-year numbers.

The share of renewable energies has also increased considerably since 2015 to exceed 100 GW in August 2021, or nearly a quarter of the country’s installed electricity capacity. But there is still a long way to go.

Better follow-up

Another equally essential step is to expand the country’s air quality monitoring network. The CAAQMS monitors controlled by the CPCB are expensive – each costs over Rs 20 lakh – and there are only 312 in 156 cities. This leaves many urban and rural pockets unattended to understand the full extent of their air pollution.

Fortunately, a number of new, low-cost monitors have entered service that capture readings not only for PM2.5 and 10, but also for gases like NO2, SO2, methane, and secondary volatile organic compounds. . Still, the Center and state governments need to increase the density of the CAAQMS network to fully inform the science behind corrective actions, and all of this needs to happen as a priority. Given the scale of our public health crisis, wasting more time could very well lead to a public health emergency.