Delhi air can cut short lives by 10 years, says University of Chicago’s research group


The Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC) has warned that 40 percent of the population in the states of north India faced a risk of losing 7.6 years of life on an average.

In the national capital Delhi, the most polluted mega city in the world, the residents could lose 10 years of life expectancy as the average annual PM2.5 levels exceed 107 micrograms per cubic meter (107µg/m³), 21 times higher than the WHO standard, which was revised in 2021.

The smog-filled air, which usually covers Indian cities during the winter months, contains dangerously high levels of fine particulate matter called PM2.5, tiny particles that can clog lungs and cause a host of diseases.

The Air Quality Life Index prepared by EPIC indicates that the current air quality levels in the country, which holds second position in global pollution ranking, has shortened life expectancy of an average Indian by five years. Around 1.3 billion Indians live in areas where the “annual average particulate pollution level” exceeds the WHO recommended standard of five micrograms per cubic meter (5µg/m³). Earlier, it was 10 micrograms per cubic meter (10µg/m³).

“Had the Martians come to Earth and sprayed a substance that would reduce any average person on the planet’s life expectancy by two years, a global emergency would be declared,” Michael Greenstone one of the authors of the report told the BBC. “This is similar to the situation that prevails in many parts of the world, except we are spraying the substance, not some invader from outer space.”

The Air Quality Life Index converts air pollution concentrations into their impact on life expectancy, for policymakers and people to realize the threat that air pollution poses.

The Indo-Gangetic plains, home to more than 50 crore people or about 40 percent of the country’s population, is the most polluted region in India, with an annual average PM2.5 concentration of 76.2 micrograms per cubic meter (76.2µg/m³) in 2020.

The study says, “510 million residents of Indo-Gangetic plains are on track to lose 7.6 years of life expectancy on average if current pollution levels persist. Residents of Lucknow stand to lose 9.5 years of life expectancy.”

According to EPIC since 2013, India has contributed 44 percent of the population, roughly 11 times higher than the WHO standard.

The report says more than 63 percent Indians live in areas where the pollution level exceeds the country’s own air quality standard pegged at 40 micrograms per cubic meter (40µg/m³), which is much higher than the WHO recommended standard.

In 2019, India’s average particulate matter concentration was 70.3 micrograms per cubic meter (70.3µg/m³), the highest in the world.

Bad air is responsible for the deaths of millions in India every year including children. The state governments of Delhi and Punjab have been at war as stubble-burning, a common practice in the post-harvest fields of Punjab for causing pollution in the national capital during the winter months.

Now that the same party (Aam Aadmi Party) is in power in both the states, how the stubble-burning issue is tackled to make the winter of 2022 bearable for Delhiites has to be seen.

If the WHO’s stringent standards are complied with for reducing PM2.5, life expectancy can go up by 8.2 years in Uttar Pradesh, 7.9 years in Bihar, 5.9 years in West Bengal and 4.8 years in Rajasthan.

The EPIC says that particulate pollution “the greatest threat to human life in India, more lethal than tobacco consumption, in terms of life expectancy has increased by 61.4 percent since 1998.

Consumption of tobacco, especially smoking, reduces life expectancy by about 2.5 years.

Industrialization, increasing dependency on fossil fuels and economic development are being held responsible for the increase of air pollution in the country.

South Asia accounts for more than half (52 percent) of the expected lost life years globally due to high pollution.

“Average life expectancy across these four countries (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal) would be five years higher if pollution concentrations permanently complied with the WHO guidelines,” the analysis said.

The researchers said more and more people are now recognizing the severity of the air pollution problem and governments are beginning to respond.

In 2019, the Indian government declared a “war on pollution” and launched its National Clean Air Program (NCAP) with the goal of reducing the 2017 particulate pollution levels by 20 to 30 percent by 2024.

Though India has adopted fuel emission standards at par with the European Union standards, the NCAP targets are non-binding. Experts believe the NCAP could help increase national life expectancy by 1.6 years and for Delhiites by 3.2 years.