The State of Global Air 2020 report released this week and while there were several grim reminders of the alarming levels of air pollution globally, especially in South Asian countries, there was a silver lining that proves some pollution control measures are indeed working.
Toxic air at its extreme
First, the bad news. India, along with its neighbours Pakistan and Bangladesh feature in the report’s top 10 list of countries with the highest exposure to PM2.5 levels. Another dubious recognition is that 100% of the population in these countries lives in areas where PM2.5 levels are higher than the World Health Organisation (WHO) guideline, according to the report.
Infant mortality worst hit
The report stated that air pollution led to the premature deaths of 6.7 million people last year, 1.67 million of which were in India alone. The list of reasons for the high number is long – from stroke, heart attack, diabetes, lung cancer, chronic lung diseases and neonatal diseases all linked to air pollution.
What is more alarming, however, is that outdoor and household air pollution led to the death of more than 116,000 Indian infants in the first month of their life in 2019, the report stated. These deaths occurred due to complications from low birth weight and preterm births, which the study linked to mothers breathing toxic air during pregnancy. The study estimated nearly 21% of all neonatal deaths from all causes can be attributed to air pollution – both ambient and household.
“An infant’s health is critical to the future of every society, and this newest evidence suggests an especially high risk for infants born in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa,” said Dan Greenbaum, President of the Health Effects Institute (HEI). “Although there has been slow and steady reduction in household reliance on poor-quality fuels, the air pollution from these fuels continues to be a key factor in the deaths of these youngest infants,” he added.
The silver lining
The report, however, did find that all efforts have not gone to waste and that some have yielded results, although not as much as expected. There has been a significant drop in the percentage of populations exposed to household air pollution from 2010 to 2019, especially in China and India. While the former has reduced its percentage from 54% to 36%, the latter’s percentage has dropped from 73% to 61% in that decade. The study attributed this drop to aggressive campaigns urging people to switch to cleaner fuels such as the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana Household LPG programme. The threat, however, is far from removed because half the world’s population remains exposed to household air pollution, the study stated.
The least developed countries are suffering through the worst air quality, according to the study. Air pollution has moved up from being the fifth to the fourth leading risk factor for death worldwide – surpassed only by high blood pressure, tobacco use and poor diet. The report suggested that now that studies have proven the damage that even low-level air pollution can cause, high-income countries should continue aiding efforts to reduce exposure in a systematic and consistent manner.