Air that kills

P Anima | Updated on March 10, 2018

Death by air Nearly six lakh children under the age of five die every year from diseases caused or exacerbated from indoor and outdoor pollution. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty   -  The Hindu

It’s not just the big cities in India which are choking children with its bad air. The UNICEF report on air pollution throws up distressing facts and figures

To commemorate its 70th year, the UNICEF recently brought out its Clean the Air for Children report. The report assesses the impact of air pollution on children across the world and highlights staggering statistics. The study, based on satellite imagery, claims to be the first of its kind and shows that 300 million children live in areas with extremely toxic levels of pollution — exceeding the internationally prescribed limits by at least six times. In his foreword, Anthony Lake, executive director of UNICEF, says over two billion children are found to be living in areas with pollution levels that exceed the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) minimum air quality requirements. And nearly 6 lakh children under the age of five are estimated to die every year from diseases caused or exacerbated from indoor and outdoor pollution.

India, and particularly capital Delhi, had fared abysmally when it comes to air quality. Over the past couple of months, more so in November, Delhi’s air quality hardly budged from the hazardous zone. However, there are surprises in store in the report when it comes to smaller Indian cities. We compile the report’s findings on India, and how bad air is choking our children. Most victims of air pollution are in the low-and middle-income countries.

Around the world, one billion children live in homes where solid fuel is used for cooking and heating — a vital cause of indoor pollution. India, where 60 per cent of rural homes use solid fuels in household cooking, predictably fares badly on this count, contributing to over 1,00,000 child deaths associated with indoor air pollution in 2012. The report also mentions a study in Andhra Pradesh, which found that solid fuel use created a mean 24-hour average concentration of particulate matter that ranged from 73 to 732 mu g/m3. Guidelines from the WHO indicate that it should not exceed 10 mu g/m3

The report also looks at the impact of motorisation on air quality. It takes the example of three countries with the highest child population—India (20 per cent of global child population), China and Nigeria—and considers how the number of cars in these countries are likely to grow in the coming decades. The report quotes The International Organisation of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers data (2014), according to which if India were to have the same motorisation rate per capita as the US had in 2014, the number of vehicles in India would increase by nearly 40 times. From28 million in 2014, India is likely to have 1047 million vehicles in a few decades, leaving a huge question mark on the quality of air that will be available.

Ground-level monitoring reflects striking findings. Among the top ten PM10 polluted cities in the world is Gwalior, which finds itself in the 10th spot with an annual mean PM10 level of 329. India fares much worse in the data for PM 2.5 polluted cities. The UNICEF report sources figures from WHO which shows four Indian cities among the 10 most-polluted cities in the world —Gwalior makes this list too, becoming the second most polluted city in the world with an annual mean PM2.5 of 176 and is followed by Allahabad at number three (170), with Patna (149) and Raipur (144) following closely in the sixth and seventh slot. Contrary to perception, the figures show that the most polluted places are no more big cities, but smaller towns.

Published on December 16, 2016

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