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India gains dubious distinction of most deaths due to air pollution

India has the dubious distinction of being the country with the most deaths attributed to air pollution. The Global Burden of Disease report put that number at 1.81 million in 2015, followed by China with 1.6 million deaths. In a statement addressing the challenge of air pollution in India, the WHO said that “pollutants of major public health concern include particulate matter (PM), carbon monoxide, ozone, nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide.”

Particulate matter refers to a mixture of liquid and solid particles of organic and inorganic matter suspended in the air. They are too small for the naked eye to see and are typically measured in two sizes, less than 10 microns and less than 2.5 microns. These particulates make their way into our lungs; chronic exposure to these particles increases the risk of respiratory illnesses and lung cancer.

PM10 in particular has been in the news recently as Delhi’s levels were literally off the charts last month, forcing the government to shut schools to protect children. This past week, cricket fans were treated to the sight of Sri Lanka’s cricketers throwing up at the Feroz Shah Kotla due to the pollution. Both teams had oxygen cylinders in their dressing rooms. India’s recommended limit for PM10 for a 24-hour period is 100ug/m3. Levels in Delhi exceeded 1000.

And Delhi isn’t even the most polluted city in India. According to WHO, Gwalior’s annual average PM10 concentration was 329 per cubic metre of air volume in 2012, or over 16 times the WHO limit and almost six times the limit set by the Indian government (60 ug/m3). In fact, 13 of the 20 cities in the world with the highest concentration of PM2.5 are in India. “Air quality as bad as it is in India kills babies and old people, impedes healthy development in children, and gives everyone else respiratory infections,” said Sangita Vyas, a research fellow at the New Delhi-based Research Institute for Compassionate Economics.

Doctors across the country have been warning about rising air pollution levels and reporting increases in respiratory illnesses, driven in no small part by the spate of construction taking place in cities across the country coupled with the poor or declining state of public transportation. And, it is all the more apparent in Mumbai, which, besides dealing with unbridled real estate projects, is also witnessing the construction of the Metro projects.

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