Stunning number of deaths in India due to air pollution

Given that the population if India is over one billion, raw numbers of almost any statistic are likely to be large. But I was still stunned to see this report that estimates that 1.24 million people were killed in 2017 alone due to the effects of air pollution, and that life expectancy was reduced by 1.7 years because of this.

India’s toxic air has claimed 1.24 million lives in 2017, or 12.5 percent of total deaths recorded in the year, says a study.

The study, published in the journal Lancet Planetary Health on Thursday, said more than 51 percent of the people who died because of air pollution were younger than 70.

Of the total, about 670,000 died from air pollution in the wider environment and 480,000 from household pollution related to the use of solid cooking fuels.

The Indian capital, New Delhi, was most exposed to the tiny particulate matter, known as PM2.5, that can reach deep into the lungs and cause major health problems, the study said.

The Indian capital of New Delhi is one of the worst hit areas and its 20 million population encounters air quality that routinely exceed safe levels and regularly reaches levels labeled ‘severe’ or ‘hazardous’.

If you haven’t experienced it, is hard to describe what it is like to live in an area with heavy air pollution. As a young boy living in London around 1960, I remember days when I would walk to and from school in what was known as ‘smog’, a thick mixture of smoke and fog that limited visibility to just a few feet even in the middle of the day. Everything was covered with grime. Then when I was a graduate student in Pittsburgh around 1980, thanks to the steel mills there would be days when you could strongly smell the pollutants in the air, enough to make you feel nauseous. Knowing that you were breathing in all that muck was not comforting.

Thanks to the backlash against such conditions, many countries have cleaned up their air. In the US, this was mainly due to the Clean Air Act of 1970, passed at a time when politicians actually responded to people’s concerns about the quality of the air they breathed and the water they drank, that set standards for the emission of pollutants into the air. Now in the US, it is mainly during periods of major fires that the issue of air quality comes up.

But this very success has made people think that clean air will always be there. The Trump administration, as a favor to the fossil fuel industry, is taking advantage of this sense of complacency and is trying to roll back those protections, coupling this with efforts to reopen coal-burning plants.

Clean air, like clean water, is something that people take for granted and notice only when it goes away. We cannot wait until we reach the kinds of conditions in New Delhi or Beijing to once again recognize the importance of protecting air quality.


  1. Jenora Feuer says

    Oh, that’s not the only reason, Marcus. Acid rain was destroying some rich people’s limestone sculptures as well.

  2. DonDueed says

    I think it’s remarkable that Mano had to define the word “smog” in this post. Has it really dropped so far out of use? If so, it’s quite a testament to the success of the Clean Air Act (and similar legislation) in the US.

  3. Mano Singham says

    I associate use of the word ‘smog’ with the UK since fog is not that common in urban areas of the US. Hence I thought that US readers may not be that familiar with it.

  4. seachange says

    I live in LA and yes the word “smog” does need to be defined to the younger generations. It sounds quaint to them.

  5. avalus says

    London -- LA, different kinds of smog, which is important. Other than London smog, LA Smog is mostly oxidized organic molecules from traffic, tire-dust and develops best in full sunlight because UV light produces ozone over tarmac when nitrous oxides (from engine exhausts) are present. Really interesting chemistry that goes on there.

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