Explained | What WHO's pollution norms mean for India

Explained | What WHO's new pollution norms mean for India

The guidelines set new markers for governments to base their national level limits on pollutants

Traffic moves on a smoggy morning in New Delhi. Credit: Reuters Photo

The World Health Organization (WHO) tightened its air quality guidelines on Wednesday for the first time since 2005. The new guidelines hope to spur countries toward clean energy and prevent deaths and illnesses caused by air pollution. The guidelines set new markers for governments across the globe to base their national level limits on pollutants.

With the current pollution levels and air quality in India, meeting WHO's guidelines could be a tough ask.

Also read: New WHO air-quality guidelines aim to cut deaths linked to fossil fuels

How pollution impacts lives and where India stands

Every year, exposure to air pollution is estimated to cause 7 million premature deaths and result in the loss of millions more healthy years of life, a release by the WHO said.

India fares at the bottom among polluted countries with 22 of the top 30 polluted cities in the world. Transportation, biomass burning, industry and construction are among major contributors to air pollution.

Based on a report by IQAir, India was ranked the third-worst country and Delhi the worst capital in the world in terms of the annual average PM 2.5 concentration (microgram per cubic metre) in 2020, which measured the small particles of based on data reported by ground-level monitoring stations in 98 countries.

WHO says the main human-generated sources of air pollution can vary geographically but include the energy and transportation sectors, as well as waste dump sites and home cooking and heating.

What are the new guidelines?

The guidelines, which are intended as a reference for policymakers, advocacy groups and academics, lower the advised concentrations of six pollutants known to have impacts on health: two types of particulate matter known as PM 2.5 and PM 10, as well as ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide. 

But the guidelines could also send a message to the wider public about lifestyle and business choices – whether it's driving cars and trucks, disposing of garbage, working in industrial jobs or farming.

The new guidelines set or revise downward recommended air pollutionlevels for nearly all of the six particles both on a daily and annual basis. For example, they slashed the PM 2.5 recommendation on an annual basis to 5 micrograms per cubic meter, down from 10 previously.

While wealthy countries in Europe, Asia and North America have made strides in improving air quality in recent years, WHO says globally more than 90% of the world population breathes air with PM 2.5 concentrations that exceed the recommended levels in its last guidelines, published in 2006. 

How this will help

Such particles can penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream, resulting in both respiratory and cardiovascular impacts. Air pollution has been linked to heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and early death, and recent evidence has suggested negative effects on pregnancy, cognitive development in kids, and mental health, experts say.

Lowering PM2.5 levels by 5 micrograms per cubic meter per year could result in major health benefits.

Research shows that each 5 micrograms per cubic meter increase in exposure to PM2.5 during pregnancy is associated with a 4% increased likelihood of having a baby with low birth weight. In adulthood, 5 micrograms per cubic meter per year exposure is associated with a 13% increased likelihood of heart events, like heart attacks and cardiovascular-related deaths; a 4% increased likelihood of lung cancer; and more than a twofold increased likelihood of Alzheimer’s disease.

Lowering the health burden associated with air pollution exposure like this could save $5 trillion annually in health-related costs and $225 billion in labour productivity, according to World Bank estimates.

Reducing the drivers of air pollution can also help fight another global crisis – climate change. That’s because some air pollutants directly contribute to global warming, and some of the solutions for reducing air pollution reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

What this means for India

India's own national limits have been lenient compared to WHO's older guidelines.

For example, the recommended PM2.5 concentration over a 24-hour period is 60 micrograms per cubic metre, compared with 25 micrograms advised by WHO’s 2005 guidelines. But even the lower standards are hardly met, according to a report by CNBC TV18. 

No country’s pollution limits come close

Also read: India third-most polluted country in world, next only to Bangladesh, Pakistan: report

India can expect to improve its air quality with cleaner surroundings, reviving projects and better quality of roads. 

Government programmes such as the Swachch Bharat, Namami Gange, Smart City Mission, building of highways and expressways, the push for electric vehicles, could lead to a significant improvement in air quality, according to an analysis by The Indian Express.

The effect of India’s bad pollution is not just failing to meet WHO's new guidelines but a major impact to the economy as well.

According to a report by the Clean Air Fund and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), air pollution costs Indian businesses $95 billion every fiscal year, equivalent roughly to 50 per cent of tax collected annually.

(With agency inputs)

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