India’s fatal air pollution problem

From ToxicLeaks

Air quality in India[edit | edit source]

On November 7, 2017, for the third time in less than a month, residents of Delhi – a city of more than 18 million people, with a population comparable to megacity Beijing – couldn’t see in front of them. The average air quality index (AQI) reading peaked at 403, indicating severe pollution levels, while 12 of 19 monitoring stations recorded severe air quality. Meteorologists, though, said it was all fog and not smog.

The same might be said of Indian officials’ response to the problem, and not just one Tuesday morning. Although winter weather conditions contribute to India’s pollution woes, they’re not the cause of it and when AQI readings reach severe levels there are action plans that are supposed to take effect. Those plans weren’t immediately implemented, even as residents said they couldn’t breathe. Shortly before noon, the Indian Medical Association declared a public health emergency, insisting that schools be shut down and citizens urged to stay home and indoors. Officials were slow to respond to a days-long crisis.

India’s pollution problem had been so severe that cyclists participating in a November 5 event to raise awareness about fossil fuels and air quality wore masks and still complained of respiratory distress; the IMA president, Dr. K.K. Aggarwal, appealed for the cancellation of a November 19 marathon because of the high AQI readings. “We have a right to breathe,” Aggarwal said in a November 3 video address. “Let’s all fight for clean air (and) make sure that our air is pure so that we can live a normal life.”

India began its Air Quality Index reporting system just three years prior, in 2014, and is just beginning to deal with the fallout of its rapid industrialization, traditional causes of pollution, and poor environmental regulation. Aggarwal said effects begin at 200 levels. At an AQI reading of more than 400, even healthy people will have respiratory impacts and there are serious consequences for people with underlying heart and lung conditions. Aggarwal’s pleas for India are consistent with those of global health leaders.

Lancet study 2017: India[edit | edit source]

While there has long been global awareness of Beijing’s choking smog and high incidence of pollution-related deaths, it’s really India that has a higher percentage of fatalities tied to air quality. The 2017 State of Global Air report, published by the Health Effects Institute, shows that air pollution-related deaths in India between 1990 and 2015 rose by almost 150 percent.  In India, it’s 14.7 people in every 100,000 who die of ozone-related illness; that figure is 5.9 per 100,000 in China. Air pollution caused 6.5 million premature deaths in 2015, according to research published by the Lancet in October 2017.

Of that number, 1.8 million deaths – 28 percent of the global total – occur in India. One of every four premature deaths in India is caused by pollution. Globally, pollution in all forms in 2015 accounted for 21 percent of all deaths from cardiovascular disease, 26 percent from ischemic heart disease, 23 percent from stroke, 51 percent of COPD deaths and 43 percent of deaths caused by lung cancer. While the medical evidence is clear, so is the connection to the developing world. The Lancet commission found that 92 percent of these deaths occurred in low- or middle-income developing countries, including India.

Causes of India’s pollution[edit | edit source]

In Delhi, half of the city’s 4.4 million children already have lung damage they will carry for the rest of their lives. Understanding the root causes is critical to India’s future, but also to the global community in the fight against climate change. The November 2017 spike in India’s nationwide AQI values – when not dismissed as “fog” – was attributed to farmers burning stubble in rural provinces, during a weather pattern that wafted the smoke into huge swaths of India and Pakistan. In addition to the extreme health consequences, Pakistan blamed India for air quality issues in Lahore and elsewhere as smoke wafted in. On November 7, the pollution shut down Pakistan roads and Lahore’s Allama Iqbal International Airport.

Poverty-related pollution, in general, is a significant source of India’s AQI values and its crisis. Of the 1.6 billion people living on the planet without electricity, about 25 percent are in India and another 300 million Indians live with very limited access. People burn stubble in rural regions, but they also rely on firewood and other particle-heavy sources for cooking and heat, and they burn waste plastics in cities.

There’s no denying that of all causes, India’s rapid development and expanding population are drivers of air pollution – whether in the number of cars spewing diesel exhaust on Delhi roads or the countless factories failing to comply with clean air standards. “You can almost think of this as the perfect storm for India,” says Michael Brauer, a professor of environment and health relationships at the University of British Columbia, who was an author of the 2017 State of Global Air report.

Policies on air pollution[edit | edit source]

India has had – in some form – an Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act since 1981. Yet India isn’t making the improvements that China has started to see, because of weak regulation and enforcement. That’s true in the failure to stop farmers from burning rubble, or vendors from selling fireworks during the Diwali festival, which has been a cause of AQI spikes in the past. India’s coal-fired power plants are making up for 2017’s drought-driven hydropower deficits and running at a three-year high; they’re required to install clean air equipment, but staffing to inspect and enforce India’s plants isn’t there.

Government agencies that enforce India’s Air and Water acts had only a few hundred technical staff in 2015 to monitor at least 50,000 plants in the most industrialized states. Environmental violations are criminal violations, and only the most egregious offenses are addressed. Advocates are appealing for civil penalties in some cases instead, and suggesting digital electronic monitoring systems for industry. Building stronger institutions and legal structures is a priority, but it’s not keeping pace with India’s development – or its public health crisis. Even the hope for a renewable-energy future is darkened by India’s air pollution, as experts say India loses 25 percent of its solar capacity to a smog-blocked sun.

And even India’s environmental agency admits enforcement is weak. That’s literally fatal for thousands of Indians now, and it promises an existential crisis in a carbon-constrained and climate-challenged future.