Air Pollution in India: Impact on Life Expectancy and Health
Air pollution, particularly fine particulate pollution (PM2.5), stands as a critical threat to human health in India. Recent research from the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) at the University of Chicago reveals alarming data regarding its severe consequences on the Indian population’s well-being.
The Alarming Impact of Air Pollution
The AQLI findings underscore that air pollution’s impact on life expectancy is a pressing global concern. The data demonstrates that pollution reduces the average Indian’s life expectancy by a staggering 5.3 years, rivaling the adverse effects of smoking and surpassing those of alcohol use, unsafe water, and even car crash injuries.
“Three-quarters of air pollution’s impact on global life expectancy occurs in just six countries, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, China, Nigeria, and Indonesia, where people lose one to more than six years off their lives because of the air they breathe,”
– Michael Greenstone, Milton Friedman Distinguished Service Professor in Economics
This alarming trend reveals the gravity of the situation, emphasizing the need for immediate action to address air quality worldwide.
Life Expectancy Gains Through Pollution Reduction
The report emphasizes that adhering to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guideline for fine particulate pollution could lead to a significant increase in life expectancy. If PM2.5 levels were permanently reduced to meet the WHO guideline, the average individual could add 2.3 years to their life expectancy. Collectively, this reduction could result in an astounding 17.8 billion life-years saved on a global scale.
South Asia — The Deadliest Region
South Asia, which houses nearly a quarter of the global population, faces a particularly dire situation. The AQLI reveals that rising air pollution could potentially slash life expectancy by over five years per person in this region. The four most polluted countries in the world—Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan—are located here. Residents in these countries stand to lose about 5 years off their lives due to persistently high pollution levels. This region is responsible for more than half of the total global life years lost due to pollution.
India’s Efforts Against Pollution
India, in particular, has taken steps to combat air pollution. In 2019, the government launched the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) with the goal of reducing particulate pollution levels by 20 to 30 percent by 2024. This initiative gained further momentum in 2022, with a revamped goal of achieving a 40 percent reduction in particulate pollution levels by 2026 in 131 non-attainment cities.
The AQLI report highlights the substantial benefits of achieving and maintaining this reduction. It states that reaching this goal for the 131 non-attainment cities could increase India’s national average life expectancy by 7.9 months. Furthermore, for residents of Delhi—the most polluted non-attainment city—the potential gain in life expectancy could be a remarkable 4.4 years.
The AQLI’s data presents several key takeaways:
- All of India’s 1.3 billion people reside in areas where annual average particulate pollution levels exceed the WHO guideline.
- 67.4 percent of the population lives in areas that surpass India’s own national air quality standard of 40 µg/m3.
- Particulate pollution is the primary threat to human health in India, reducing the average individual’s life expectancy by 5.3 years.
- Comparatively, cardiovascular diseases shorten life expectancy by about 4.5 years, while child and maternal malnutrition decrease it by 1.8 years.
- Particulate pollution has risen significantly, increasing average annual levels by 67.7 percent from 1998 to 2021, resulting in a further life expectancy reduction of 2.3 years.
- From 2013 to 2021, 59.1 percent of the world’s increase in pollution originated from India.
- In the most polluted region of India—the Northern Plains—521.2 million residents, or 38.9 percent of the population, could lose 8 years of life expectancy on average relative to the WHO guideline and 4.5 years relative to the national standard if current pollution levels persist.
- Reducing particulate pollution to meet the WHO guideline could lead to significant life expectancy gains, such as 11.9 years for residents of Delhi and 5.6 years for residents of North 24 Parganas.
The urgency of addressing air pollution is evident. Efforts to reduce pollution levels hold the potential to significantly enhance both the quantity and quality of life for millions in India.