New Lancet study shows air pollution kills 33,000 people every year in India’s major urban centers

Most of the victims of bad air in India’s major cities are working people who cannot access adequate healthcare facilities

July 05, 2024 by Peoples Dispatch
Photo: Sumita Roy Dutta

Air pollution in many of India’s major cities is responsible for over 7.2% of all deaths, claims a new Lancet study. The study, released on Thursday, July 4, recommends the government take immediate measures to reduce the presence of deadly substances from air circulating in its cities.  

Claimed to be the first of its kind, the multi-city study examined the association between short term exposure to cancer causing PM2.5 and daily mortality. The study concludes that every year, at least 33,000 more people die in India’s ten major cities, mostly due to the difference in air quality standards between the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Indian government.

Researchers looked at 3.6 million recorded deaths in ten major Indian cities between 2008 and 2019, and the daily concentration of microparticles called PM2.5 in the air surrounding them. The cities studied were Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Ahmedadabd, Pune, Shimla, and Varanasi. 

The study found that Dehli had the highest percentage of deaths attributed to air pollution. Over 12,000 of annual deaths, or almost 12% of all recorded deaths in Delhi between 2008 and 2019 were caused by the exposure of PM2.5.

However, cities which are usually considered to have better air quality, such as Mumbai and Kolkata, also had high death rates caused by air pollution.

PM2.5 are micro pollutants less than 2.5 microns or less in length. These pollutants are usually generated by the burning of transport fuel or industrial activities. According to WHO, 15 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic meter of air is safe. However, the Indian government considers the presence of 60 micrograms per cubic meter of PM2.5, four times the WHO standards, as being safe. The study finds that the difference in standards is a major reason for excess deaths caused by air pollution in India. 

The study claims that exposure to above the WHO’s recommended levels of PM2.5 for around 48 hours can worsen life expectancy at collective levels. Most Indian cities have been found to be among the world’s most polluted cities.

The presence of PM2.5 in cities such as in Delhi is often found to be many times higher than even the limits of the Indian government, particularly during the winter days. During November last year it topped 390 micrograms per cubic meter. 

Studies show that it is mostly working class people in the cities who are affected by bad air quality. They often continue to work even if there are red alert emergencies issued because of bad air quality, exposing themselves for longer hours to deadly conditions and often falling sick. Privatization of health care means most working people cannot even afford to get proper treatment, which ultimately means untimely death or incapacitation.

According to a previous report by the Lancet, air pollution caused at least 1.67 million premature deaths in India in 2019 alone. The State of Global Air (SoGA) report, released in June said that every day at least 464 children die in India due to air pollution which now ranks as the second leading health hazard for children worldwide.   

The Indian state has failed to take the problem of air pollution seriously and implement measures to control the falling quality of air in its big cities. Government inaction has left most Indian cities unlivable, particularly for the poor and working classes.