Within a decade at most, India will be staring at air pollution as a major killer. Five years back in 2010, there were an estimated 6.5 lakh premature deaths in the country due to outdoor pollution alone. Inhaling polluted air caused strokes and heart attacks, chronic obstructive pulmory disease (COPD) of the lungs, acute respiratory infections and also likely lung cancer. And the situation is rapidly getting worse, warns a recent study by the Max Planck Institute and published in the prestigious science jourl ture. Delhi is on course to have the most polluted air in the world by 2025, which will claim around 32,000 lives a year. Kolkata will be following close behind with nearly 27,000 premature deaths per year while the comparable figure for Mumbai will be around 17,500. As of now, the use of bio-fuels for cooking and heating purposes in the country is causing more than half the number of air pollution deaths. This exposes all the hollow talk about the government popularising ‘improved, smokeless’ chulhas in our villages, with scientists now calling for cleaner fuels rather than these so-called cleaner chulhas. They have warned that solid fuel like coal, fuelwood, cakes of animal dung and crop residues cannot be burnt efficiently in the inexpensive stoves presently available, which create a lot of polluting smoke both indoors and outdoors. It is a sobering thought that the small, humble, domestic fires in numerous Indian homes, particularly in rural areas, are causing so many premature deaths. The mischief is done by tiny particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter penetrating deep into lungs and possibly blood vessels, along with toxic gases like carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and polycyclic organic matter.
Overall, the number of premature deaths could shoot up to a staggering 66 lakh a year worldwide by 2050, if countries do not join forces to improve air quality. Such an alarming picture 35 years into the future is borne out by the fact that air pollution is estimated to have finished off 33 lakh people prematurely only in the year 2010. Chi with 13.5 lakh deaths topped the table, followed by India, Pakistan (1.1 lakh) and Bangladesh (nearly 92,000). Asia thus accounts for 75 per cent such premature deaths, with the causes varying from residential energy use to harmful waste disposal, fumes from diesel generators, industrial smoke and traffic emissions. The fifth to seventh places in this table is occupied by Nigeria, Russia and the US. Interestingly, if indoor cooking and heating with wood and bio-fuels is the biggest cause of air pollution deaths in developing countries, agriculture happens to be the prime culprit in north-eastern US, entire Europe, Russia, Japan and South Korea. Scientists ascribe this to ammonia from fertilizer and animal waste in farms combining with sulfates from coal-fired power plants and nitrates from car exhausts — to form soot particles deadly for lungs. Another aspect of the study is important, considering the gaps in air pollution data in the developing world, as well as specific knowledge about how different pollution sources cause diseases and death. Max Planck Institute researchers took a global look at outdoor air pollution, using a computer model fusing air pollution and atmospheric chemistry data on average levels of harmful ozone and fine particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns. Their grim forecast of pollutant levels and likely deaths by 2050 has been made assuming that policymakers fail to implement new controls by then. Since the biggest sufferers of air pollution are Chi and India, the need to switch over to cleaner fuels and make drastic emission cuts has never been greater. Presently enjoying the demographic dividend of a mostly young population, India will be bearing a larger burden of the elderly in the decades ahead. The medical cost of air pollution will be prohibitive unless our planners at the Central and state levels get their act together to improve air quality and public health at local levels.