Air quality now even more of a concern

Air quality now even more of a concern

India’s pollution levels are far above the WHO standards

Smog engulfs the highrise buildings, in Mumbai. Credit: PTI File Photo

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) new Global Air Quality Guidelines (AQGs) have set the standards much higher than its existing benchmarks, and should alert the world to the threat of rising air pollution. The new guidelines are more stringent than the earlier recommendations made in 2005. They are based on the latest scientific studies on the impact of air pollution on health.

According to the report, 90% of the world’s people live in areas with at least one especially harmful type of pollutants, such as particulate matter, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide. The guidelines were revised because it has been found that much lower levels of pollution than given in the earlier guidelines can cause damage to health. According to the report, air pollution causes seven million premature deaths annually in the world. Disparities in pollution levels are increasing and low and middle-income countries are facing increasing threats from pollution due to urbanisation and the burning of fossil fuels. 

Also read: Combatting an invisible killer: New WHO air pollution guidelines recommend sharply lower limits

India’s pollution levels are far above the WHO standards. They were so even before the new guidelines arrived. According to the World Air Quality Report 2020, 22 of the world’s 30 most polluted cities are in India, and Delhi is the most polluted capital city. Air pollution kills some two million Indians every year and is the fifth largest killer in the country. The acceptable PM (particulate matter) 2.5 exposure limit over 24 hours prescribed by the 2009 National Ambient Air Quality Standards is four times the new WHO limit. For exposure over a year-long period, it is eight times the revised threshold. The 2019 National Clean Air Programme aims to achieve a 20-30% reduction in PM 2.5 concentrations over the 2017 levels in 100 cities by 2024. But the programme does not have any legal mandate. 

Air pollution has never been considered a major health hazard to be tackled on an urgent basis in the country. It is not just a health problem but seriously affects economic growth, too. Various studies have linked the state of air pollution to loss of GDP in states and cities. Climate change is going to make the situation worse in the coming years. So, it is necessary to evolve plans to counter air pollution and to implement them earnestly. This may pose challenges in a country with very diverse geo-climatic zones, but there is the need for effective action in the interest of public health and development. The new guidelines being prepared by the Central Pollution Control Board should be linked to the latest WHO norms, and the effort must be to formulate strategies on their basis. 

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