Polluted Air Cuts Years Off Lives of Millions in India, Study Finds

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — More than half of India’s population lives in places with such polluted air that each person loses an average of 3.2 years in life expectancy, according to a recent study by researchers from the University of Chicago, Yale and Harvard.

Altogether, 660 million Indians could lose 2.1 billion years as a result of air pollution at enormous cost to the country’s economy, the researchers found.

“This study demonstrates that air pollution retards growth by causing people to die prematurely,” said Michael Greenstone, an author of the study and the director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago.

A World Health Organization study last year found that 13 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in India, with New Delhi’s air the world’s worst. But India’s government has made economic development its priority and has announced its intention to double the country’s use of coal over the next five years, which is likely to worsen the country’s air pollution.

But a growing array of studies has shown that the costs of India’s poor air are substantial. For instance, research has shown that India’s air pollution problems may cut agricultural production by a third. That might explain why wheat and rice yields in India have begun to level off or even drop in some states after decades of growth.

The authors of the recent study say that India should improve its monitoring of air quality, institute a system of civil monetary penalties for excessive polluters and adopt a trading system for pollution rights.

For years, Indians have seemed largely unaware of the country’s pollution woes. But a concerted campaign over the past year by Indian media outlets is beginning to change that.

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Delhi Wakes Up to an Air Pollution Problem It Cannot Ignore

NEW DELHI — For years, this sprawling city on the Yamuna River had the dirtiest air in the world, but few who lived here seemed conscious of the problem or worried about its consequences.

Now, suddenly, that has begun to change. Some among New Delhi’s Indian and foreign elites have started to wear the white surgical masks so common in Beijing. The United States Embassy purchased 1,800 high-end air purifiers in recent months for staff members’ homes, with many other major embassies following suit.

Some embassies, including Norway’s, have begun telling diplomats with children to reconsider moving to the city, and officials have quietly reported a surge in diplomats choosing to curtail their tours. Indian companies have begun ordering filtration systems for their office buildings.

“My business has just taken off,” said Barun Aggarwal, director of BreatheEasy, a Delhi-based air filtration company. “It started in the diplomatic community, but it’s spread to the high-level Indian community, too.”

The increased awareness of the depth of India’s air problems even led Indian diplomats, who had long expressed little interest in climate and pollution discussions with United States officials, to suddenly ask the Americans for help in cleaning India’s air late last year, according to participants in the talks. So when President Obama left Delhi after a visit last month, he could point to a series of pollution agreements, including one to bring the United States system for measuring pollution levels to many Indian cities and another to help study ways to reduce exhaust from trucks, a major source of urban pollution.

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250,000 Could Die Early From Breathing in China’s Cities, Study Finds

Improved data has made it possible to better calculate how many people could die early deaths in China as a result of air pollution, researchers say. The results are grim.

According to a fresh analysis conducted by Peking University and the activist group Greenpeace, more than 250,000 people living in the country’s major cities could die prematurely as the result of the Middle Kingdom’s smog-ridden skies.

In what the researchers describe as a first, the study is based on data reflecting levels of small particulate matter known as PM 2.5 that the government began more widely reporting for certain cities in 2013.

The study looked at China’s major cities, specifically the country’s 31 provincial capitals. It concluded that an average of 90 out of every 100,000 people living in such cities could die prematurely following prolonged exposure to the levels of particulate matter pollution recorded in 2013.

Still, Peking University professor Pan Xiaochuan, who led the study, said that at least by certain indicators, the country’s air doesn’t consist of quite the same sickening morass of pollutants it used to be. For example, he said, levels of sulfur dioxide – which can cause various respiratory problems, particularly for the asthmatic –  have dropped in cities.

“On the whole, air quality has had some improvement,” he said, though he said given limited PM 2.5 data availability for past years, it wasn’t possible to determine whether such pollutants – which experts say are most damaging to human health – had intensified or waned.

China’s government last year declared a “war” on pollution, a year after releasing more ambitious targets for PM2.5 reduction in several regions. For example, in Beijing — whose high levels of air pollution recently prompted the mayor himself to call the city “unlivable” — concentrations are targeted for around 25% reduction by 2017. The city is surrounded by some of the city’s highest levels of haze, thanks in part to its proximity to Hebei province, home to seven cities with the country’s dirtiest skies.

Greenpeace staffer Fang Yuan said he is “cautiously optimistic” that such targets can be reached, adding that Beijing’s PM2.5 levels dropped 4% compared with last year, thanks in part to stricter traffic controls and efforts to reduce coal consumption. However, he said, even if the city reduces PM2.5 levels to meet national targets by 2017, such levels will still be too high for recommended breathing levels.

– Te-Ping Chen

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