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Economic toll of air pollution revealed with India’s problem not only impacting health

Air pollution draped over a section of the Ganga River in Patna, Bihar. Pollution is a major factor contributing to the crisis in India’s rivers, making many of them incapable of sustaining human life.

A recent study published in The Lancet has provided evidence of the adverse economic impact of air pollution in India, an effect that comes alongside multiple negative health outcomes.

The study, conducted by researchers from the Global Observatory on Pollution and Health at Boston College, the Indian Council of Medical Research, and the Public Health Foundation of India, found that air pollution accounted for $36.8 billion worth of economic damage to India. This impact translates to 1.36 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

The breakdown of this fiscal loss shows that premature deaths attributable to air pollution in 2019 caused an economic loss of $28.8 billion, and morbidity attributable to air pollution cost $8 billion. Further analysis into the economic-health relationship in the study showed that of $36.8 billion India lost in 2019, 36.6 percent was from lung diseases. This included chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) at 21.1 percent; lower respiratory infections at 14.2 percent; and lung cancer at 1.2 percent lung cancer. The remainder came from conditions such as ischaemic heart disease, stroke, diabetes, neonatal disorders, and cataract damage. 

Speaking about the problem of air pollution and its economic toll, lead researcher Philip J. Landrigan, Professor of Biology at Boston College and director of the Global Observatory on Pollution and Health, said, “it [air pollution] increases future risk for heart disease, diabetes, and respiratory disease for today’s children when they become adults. It is reducing children’s IQ. It will be very difficult for India to move forward socially or economically if they don’t do something about the problem.”

Regional impact of air pollution 

Studies show there is also a regional factor to air pollution. Southern India has shown to have the best air quality across the country in non-urban areas. Conversely, pollution levels over the Indo-Gangetic Plain are double that of the rest of the country. Whilst there are thought to be a number of contributing factors to this – such as the input of pollutants, weather conditions, and local conditions – it remains a startling finding. 

Key research also tells us that outdoor air pollution is not only a problem in urban areas too. This is because non-urban areas appear to create a significant amount of their own pollution, be it through transport, industry, or methods of generating power. In fact, the problem of air pollution comes from different sources in non-urban areas but has a clear negative impact. 

“In urban areas, the contribution of indoor air pollution to outdoor air pollution is not very large. Transportation, industry, among others, are significant factors,” lead author Dr. A. R. Ravishankara said. Yet non-urban areas face the exact opposite. “The residential energy use is a significant emissions source, primarily due to household cooking with solid fuels in non-urban areas.” 

Those living in non-urban areas are experiencing the clear effects of air pollution and are far less well equipped to deal with health implications. Speaking to Professor Ravishankara, lead author of the research article “Outdoor air pollution in India is not only an urban problem” – he said, “we used premature deaths as one metric for the effect of pollution on the public health of India’s population. There are many other impacts such as asthma, reduced productivity, and large healthcare costs that subsequently become a burden.” 

Yet this is likely a greater burden on those living in non-urban areas. “People in the non-urban areas are economically less well off. They have much less access to healthcare facilities, and they cannot afford to take simple measures such as air purifiers. Furthermore, they are often nutritionally challenged.”

Addressing air pollution in India 

In identifying methods to address the issue of air pollution – an issue that sees 84 percent of India’s population is exposed to levels much higher than India’s safety standards allow –   Professor Ravishankara identified several factors that could play a role. These included not sacrificing health for economic development, reducing easily controllable emissions such as crop burning or use of dung and wood for cooking, reducing fossil fuels such as coal in power plants, and cutting back easily preventable emissions. 

Above all, he says, “Don’t follow the path taken by the ‘developed countries’ of polluting first and then cleaning up!”

For more information on India’s air quality status across the country, visit India’s air quality index visual map

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