Air pollution is reaching endemic proportions

22 November 2019

Air pollution is a potent killer. Need proof? Consider these facts: in the United States alone some 200,000 people succumb to ailments brought on or exacerbated by toxic air. Air pollution has been linked to a variety of debilitating health conditions from coronary disease to strokes.

Nor is the US alone in the terrible toll air pollution takes on people’s health and lives. In notoriously polluted cities like New Delhi, in India, chronic levels of air pollution often blights the lives of locals, especially the poor. Often toxic air even forces the closure of schools.

In fact, in New Delhi exposure to airborne pollutants, especially fine particles known as PM2.5, may cut a local’s life expectancy short by up to 17 years. “At present, residents of Delhi are breathing about 25 times more toxic air than the permissible limit according to World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines,” India Today observes.

And things are set to get even worse. Rampant urbanization and the continued burning of fossil fuels are driving up the content of minute airborne pollutants across much of the world, not least in India.

“Air pollution is the fifth leading risk factor for mortality worldwide,” says the State of Global Air Report 2019 by the American Health Effects Institute. “It is responsible for more deaths than malnutrition, alcoholism and physical inactivity. Each year more people die from air pollution-related diseases than from road traffic injuries or malaria.”

In just one year, in 2017, 1.2 million Indians died due to ailments triggered by air pollution. “Globally, air pollution (PM 2.5, household and ozone emissions) is estimated to have contributed to about 4.9 million deaths — 8.7% of all deaths globally and 5.9% of all life years lost to disability, in 2017,” the report notes.

Yet that same year China, another country with chronically high levels of air pollution, saved hundreds of thousands of lives thanks to policies aimed at reducing the content of fine particles in the air of urban areas. New rules on industrial emissions and the promotion of clean fuels have both served to reduce the extent of airborne pollutants in China, according to a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).

As recently as in 2013, Beijing had concentrations of PM2.5 that were 40 times higher than levels recommended by the WHO. That year, however, several wide-ranging clean air policies were introduced across the country, which led to “significant declines” in PM2.5 levels by 2017. New standards were set for thermal power plants and industrial boilers. Highly polluting ageing factories were shuttered. New emissions rules were enacted for vehicles.

“Our study confirms the effectiveness of China’s recent clean air actions, and the measure-by-measure evaluation provides insights into future clean air policy making in China and in other developing and polluting countries,” the researchers write.

With foresight and effective long-term policies air pollution can be brought under control, they stress.

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