UPSC MAINS 2019: Dirty air killing Indians early and in large numbers

dirty air


Dirty air killing Indians early and in large numbers

Topic in Syllabus: General Studies Paper 3: Ecology & Environment

dirty air


The State of Global Air report brings into one place the latest information on air quality and health for countries around the globe. It is produced annually by the Health Effects Institute and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s Global Burden of Disease project as an objective.


What is the State of Global Air?

  • The State of Global Air report brings into one place the latest information on air quality and health for countries around the globe.
  • It is produced annually by the Health Effects Institute and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s Global Burden of Disease project as a source of objective, peer-reviewed air quality data and analysis.
  • Like previous reports, this year’s publication presents information on outdoor and household air pollution and on the health impacts of exposure to air pollution.
  • For the first time, the report also explores how air pollution affects life expectancy.
  • The report is designed to give citizens, journalists, policy makers, and scientist’s access to reliable, meaningful information about air pollution exposure and its health effects.


Key Global findings of the report:

  • In 2017, exposure to PM 2.5 pollution was found to be the third leading risk factor globally for Type 2 diabetes-related deaths and disability after high blood sugar and excessive body weight.
  • Air pollution ranks fifth among global risk factors for mortality exceeded only by poor diet, high blood pressure, tobacco exposure, and high blood sugar.
  • In 2017, diabetes accounted for more than one million deaths and 57 million life years lost globally — an increase of 175% and 141%, respectively, since 1990.
  • Exposure to outdoor and indoor air pollution together contributed to over 1.2 million deaths in India and China in 2017.
  • Globally, air pollution is estimated to have contributed to about 8.7% of all deaths globally and 5.9% of all life years lost to disability.
  • Since 1990, there has been a 68% jump in the number of deaths attributed to PM 2.5 exposure, with the largest spike between 1990 and 2010.
  • Russia, the European Union, Japan, Brazil, and the United States saw the most improvements in air quality.
  • But the bulk of the population in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nigeria, India, and China have been exposed to levels of PM2.5 that are well above the WHO’s warning levels of interim target of 35 ug/m^3.
  • Ozone pollution is a continuing challenge in more developed countries and is increasing in less developed areas, posing new air quality concerns.
  • Children born in South Asia will live 26 months fewer than they would in an area with better air quality, while globally, life expectancy is lower by 20 months.
  • Bhutan having the exposure was still above WHO first interim targets.
  • The top 10 nations having lowest PM2.5 exposure levels were the Maldives, United States, Norway, Estonia, Iceland, Canada, Sweden, New Zealand, Brunei, and Finland.
  • Globally, the percentage of the world’s population living in areas that exceed the most-stringent WHO Air Quality Guideline (10 µg/m3 PM2.5) decreased slightly, from 96% in 1990 to 92% in 2017.


India-Specific findings:

  • In India, air pollution is the third highest cause of death among all health risks, ranking just above smoking; each year, more people globally die from air pollution-related diseases than from road traffic injuries or malaria.
  • The burden of Type 2 diabetes contributed by exposure to fine particulate pollution is the highest in India.
  • India tops a list of 13 countries, with populations over 50 million, in which more than 10% of the population was exposed to household air pollution by use of solid fuels. About 60% of India’s population was exposed to household pollution, followed by China with 32%.
  • In India, a sweeping government effort – Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) – seeks to shift more households to liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) instead of biomass fuels.
  • PMUY provided LPG connections to 35 million poor families free of charge between 2016 and early 2018 and aims to provide 80 million connections by 2020.


Improving global burden of disease estimates with new and better data:

As the science continues to advance, the GBD project has incorporated new data and methodology into its air pollution and health assessments. This year’s State of Global Air report presents updated information for all of the indicators addressed in previous reports.

  • Eliminating double counting. This year’s report analyzes the burden of disease from ambient air pollution independently from that of household air pollution.
  • New methods for analyzing health impacts from exposures. The mathematical methods for analyzing how exposure to pollution relates to specific health risks (known as exposure–response functions) have been updated
  • New methods for assessing ozone. The method for estimating ozone concentrations has been revised, incorporating for the first time an extensive database of ground-level ozone measurements.
  • Inclusion of more PM2.5 measurements. The database of ground measurements of PM2.5 has been expanded from approximately 6,000 to 9,960 sites.


Major areas discussed in the report:


Exposure to air pollution:

  • Two main pollutants are considered key indicators of ambient, or outdoor, air quality: fine particle pollution — airborne particulate matter measuring less than 2.5 micrometers in aerodynamic diameter, commonly referred to as PM2.5 — and ground-level (tropospheric) ozone.
  • Analyses show that much of the world’s population lives in areas with unhealthy concentrations of these pollutants.
  • The latest data reveal encouraging improvements in some areas and worsening conditions in others.
  • Household air pollution from the burning of solid fuels for cooking is an important source of exposure to particulate matter inside the home.
  • This practice continues to be widespread in many regions of the world and can also be a substantial contributor to ambient pollution.
  • More than 90% of people worldwide live in areas exceeding the WHO Guideline for healthy air.
  • More than half live in areas that do not even meet WHO’s least-stringent air quality target.


Household air pollution:

  • In many places, people burn solid fuels (such as coal, wood, charcoal, dung, and other forms of biomass, like crop waste) to cook food and to heat and light their homes.
  • This practice generates high concentrations of pollutants in and around the home.
  • The GBD project defines exposure to household air pollution as the proportion of each country’s population living in households where cooking is done with solid fuels (see textbox “How Household Air Pollution Exposure Is Estimated”).
  • Since households in colder regions also use solid fuels for heating, this approach likely underestimates household air pollution exposures in those areas.
  • Globally, the number of people cooking with solid fuels has declined. However, disparities persist, and populations in less-developed countries continue to suffer the highest exposure to household air pollution.
  • Nearly half of the world’s population — a total of 3.6 billion people — were exposed to household air pollution in 2017.


The burden of disease from air pollution:

  • Air pollution exposure is linked with increased hospitalizations, disability, and early death from respiratory diseases, heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, and diabetes, as well as communicable diseases like pneumonia.
  • Air pollution contributed to almost 5 million deaths globally — nearly 1 in every 10 — in 2017.
  • To quantify how exposure to air pollution impacts population health, the GBD project assesses the burden of disease in terms of increased mortality and disability borne by a population as a whole
  • In 2017, exposure to PM2.5 was the third leading risk factor for type 2 diabetes deaths and DALYs, after high blood sugar and high body mass index.


Air pollution impact on life expectancy:

  • Life expectancy — the number of years a person is expected to live — is a common yardstick for assessing the health of a population. Globally, life expectancy at birth has increased by more than two decades on average since 1950, a remarkable improvement.
  • However, wide disparities in life expectancy remain across different countries and regions.
  • Differences in rates of childhood death are a main driver of variation in life expectancy over time and across locations, though many other factors play a role
  • Air pollution collectively reduced life expectancy by 1 year and 8 months on average worldwide, a global impact rivaling that of smoking.
  • This means a child born today will die 20 months sooner, on average, than would be expected in the absence of air pollution.



The growing burden of disease from air pollution is among the major challenges facing national governments and public health officials, with far-reaching implications for national economies and human well-being. Better understanding the sources of air pollution and key contributors to its health burden is a critical next step for implementing effective air pollution control policies.


Sample Question:

“Critically examine how the Better understanding the sources of air pollution and key contributors to its health burden is a critical next step for implementing effective air pollution control policies”.