Air pollution in India is a serious public health concern. A recent study reported that over 1.24 million deaths in India in 2017 were attributable to air pollution, accounting for 12.5% of the total deaths in the country in that year. In other words, one out of every eight deaths in India were caused by air pollution. The study was conducted by India State-Level Disease Burden Initiative Air Pollution Collaborators and published in Lancet Planet Health in January 2019.
Globally, there were five million deaths attributable to air pollution in 2017, according to another report – the State of Global Air 2019. Thus, India was responsible for nearly one-fourth of annual global deaths attributable air pollution. Currently, air pollution is the third leading cause of death in India, as reported in media reports, following dietary risks and cancer.
The Lancet study also provided quantitative measurement on the severity level of air pollution in India at a national level for the first time. It reported that annual population-weighted mean exposure to ambient particulate matter PM2·5 in India was 89·9 μg/m³ in 2017, around 9 times over the safe limit set by World Health Organization (10 μg/m³). According to the study, around 77% of India’s population was exposed to ambient air pollution with annual population-weighted mean PM2.5 greater than 40 μg/m3 in 2017, a level recommended by India’s government. No any state in Indian achieved pollution levels at or below the WHO standard for healthy air.
The study further reported that India contributed 18% of the global population but had more than 26% of the global air pollution DALYs (death and disability adjusted life years) in 2017. The study stated that its findings on the impact of air pollution on deaths and life expectancy in India might be lower than previously estimated. This may be due to that the study did not include the data related to underreporting and misclassification, which are two common issues for any mortality data.
Given the worsening air pollution, it is possible that the total number of deaths per year attributable to air pollution will continue to rise in India. According to news reports, India’s government has recently launched ‘The National Clean Air Program’, with a tentative target of 20%-30% reduction in PM2.5 and PM10 concentrations by 2024, comparing the data of 2017 as the base year. It remains unclear, however, whether this goal could be achieved, given increasing needs for energy consumption in India, which may produce more pollutants, as a result of rapid economic development and population growth there.