Cost of air pollution

Death in the Air Infographic by World Bank

The World Bank released a new report titled “The Cost of Air Pollution: strengthening the economic case for action” and in it they detail how air pollution is now the 4th leading risk factor for deaths worldwide. That’s worse than the deaths attributed to alcohol and drug use, HIV/AIDS, and even malaria. Besides the other reasons for reducing air pollution (climate change, our health, etc.) the economic one is probably the one that will communicate the strongest to everyone as air pollution costs the global economy in terms of foregone labor income to the tune of $225 Billion each year globally.

Click here for full report.

Click here to view the infographic in higher resolution.

Air pollution has emerged as the fourth-leading risk factor for deaths worldwide. While pollution-related deaths mainly strike young children and the elderly, these deaths also result in lost labor income for working-age men and women. The loss of life is tragic. The cost to the economy is substantial. The infographic below is mainly based on findings from The Cost of Air Pollution: Strengthening the economic case for action, a joint study of the World Bank and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME).
Air pollution has emerged as the fourth-leading risk factor for deaths worldwide. While pollution-related deaths mainly strike young children and the elderly, these deaths also result in lost labor income for working-age men and women. The loss of life is tragic. The cost to the economy is substantial. The infographic below is mainly based on findings from The Cost of Air Pollution: Strengthening the economic case for action, a joint study of the World Bank and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME).
Source Pollution

10 Facts About Air Pollution

We get many questions about air pollution in our office, and understandably so. It’s a topic that isn’t well understood or well-reported about in certain parts of the countries in which we work. In some cases, it is difficult to distinguish research-backed findings from common beliefs. To contribute to collective learning, here is a quick list of top 10 facts about air pollution.

  1. Air pollution is made up of chemicals, particulates, and biological materials. Common  components include, but are not limited to: nitrogen, sulfur, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, dust, and ash.
  2. Air pollution is caused by both human and natural contributors. Industries, factories, vehicles, mining, agriculture, forest fires, volcanic eruptions, and wind erosion all cause air pollution.
  3. According to the Global Burden of Disease report (2013), air pollution contributes to more than 5.5 million premature deaths every year. Another report by the International Energy Agency estimates the number to be 6.5 million deaths per year.
  4. Research has linked air pollution to multiple diseases: acute lower respiratory infections, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, tuberculosis, low birth weight, asthma, and cataract.
  5. According to the WHO, 98% of cities in low- and middle-income countries with more than 100,000 habitants have unsafe levels of air pollution.
  6. Of the top twenty most polluted cities in the world, 13 are in India and 3 are in China. Delhi ranks as 11th most polluted, whereas Beijing ranks as 57th most polluted.
  7. Over half of India’s population—660 million people—live in areas with unsafe levels of air pollution.
  8. On average, Indians living in polluted areas will lose 3.2 years of their lives due to air pollution.
  9. In 2014, India and China tied at 155 among 178 nations in rankings measuring how countries are tackling air pollution in the world, despite both countries having some of the worst air quality in the world.
  10. Pregnant women who live in  high traffic areas have a 22% higher risk of having children with impaired lung function than those living in less polluted areas.
Flickr Photo

Is Summer Air Better than Winter Air?

 

Summer is here, bringing with it clearer skies and certainly cleaner air. Right?

Summer always seems to drive out the dense clouds of pollution that suffocate many Indian cities. However, while summer air is in fact cleaner than air during other seasons, it’s still far from safe according to the standards set by the World Health Organization (WHO).

During the winter, cold air traps pollutants close to the ground, a process called an “inversion.” Summer heat prevents this inversion, which does improve the air quality. However, average air conditions in India are still clearly not ideal.

Here’s a map of today’s pollution levels across India:

 

pollution levels
Source: https://aqicn.org/map/india/

 

On a day like today, when the AQI in Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi is in the ‘unhealthy’ or ‘very unhealthy’ range, we often wonder at Smart Air if the pollution in summer really is any better than the winter.

We got to the bottom of it by analyzing the US Embassy’s data in New Delhi and US consulates’ data in Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, and Kolkata. So is summer air really better than winter air? We took the data from the past two years (June 2014 to June 2016) and broke it down into four seasons: winter (December to February), summer (March to June), monsoon (July to September), and post-monsoon (October to November). Next, we calculated the average particulate pollution (PM2.5) levels for each season.

Across the five cities we looked at, PM 2.5 levels were 26% better in the summer—118 micrograms in the winter compared to 49 micrograms in the summer. That means summer air is better.

Let’s take a look at the difference in PM2.5 between the five cities during different seasons:

 

 

US Embassy Air Quality Data
U.S. Department of State Data, June 2014 – June 2016. Air quality data may not be validated or verified

 

But how good is “better?” Here in India, “better” is nowhere near “safe.” Over the course of the two years we analyzed, average annual pollution levels in all five cities never fell below even the WHO’s more lenient (24-hour) exposure limit (25 micrograms per cubic meter). In fact, the average pollution levels across all the cities we tested was about 500% the WHO annual limit (10 micrograms) and 200% of the more lenient 24-hour limit (25)!

 

The lowest summer pollution level we found was Chennai (31 micrograms). But even that lowest summer level still surpassed the WHO limits.

Below are the 2-year graphs for each city. You can see that each city has two distinct swells in PM2.5 levels during the winter, each followed by 2 clear dips during the summer. Interestingly enough, comparing the summer and winter levels of each city from 2014-2015 to 2015-2016 shows some cities’ PM2.5 levels improving, while others’ increase between years. Most notably, Chennai’s winter pollution levels dropped significantly between years as did Hyderabad’s, while New Delhi and Kolkata experienced clear increases. However, we’re not sure whether or not this improvement and worsening of PM2.5 levels can be attributed to cities’ environmental efforts (or lack thereof).

The conclusion? The evidence is quite clear: summer air is in fact better than winter air. However, despite all the blue skies and warm days we’ve been having lately, there’s still a need to protect yourself inside and outside the house. Don’t mistake “better” for “safe.” Neither summer nor winter air meets WHO health standards and summer air is still of significant concern to public health.

 

Chennai US Department of State
U.S. State Department Data – June 2014 to June 2016. Data may not be fully verified or validated.

 

US Embassy Air Quality
U.S. State Department Data – June 2014 to June 2016. Data may not be fully verified or validated.

 

US Embassy Air Quality Data
U.S. State Department Data – June 2014 to June 2016. Data may not be fully verified or validated.

 

US Embassy Air Quality Data
U.S. State Department Data – June 2014 to June 2016. Data may not be fully verified or validated.

 

US Embassy Air quality data
U.S. State Department Data – June 2014 to June 2016. Data may not be fully verified or validated.

 

Smart Air Filters featured on CNN Money

Charles Riley, a journalist with CNN Money, recently published a long-form article on Delhi’s air quality and its impact on individuals—particularly children and those with asthma. Smart Air Filters was thrilled to be featured as one of the groups making Delhi’s air cleaner through our low-cost, DIY air filters. The article also featured Saurabh Bhasin, a lawyer taking up legislative battles with the Supreme Court and Dr. Naresh Trehan, who has called for government reforms to promote cleaner air.

Check out the full article on CNN Money’s website.

Air Pollution & Effects on Fertility and Newborn Health

Last month, Dr. Shruti Mahalingaiah from the Boston University School of Medicine, along with other scholars published a study that examined the effects of exposure to air pollution on infertility. Researchers studied a sample of over 36,000 female nurses in the United States between 1989 and 2003. They found that women who lived within 199 meters of a major road were more likely to experience infertility. The study measured both primary and secondary infertility, where the former refers to women trying to conceive for at least a year without success and the latter refers to couples who cannot conceive after at least one prior pregnancy. Though there was no significant impact of air pollution on primary infertility, women who lived near major roads were 21% more likely to report secondary infertility compared to those who lived farther away. The infertility effects were stronger for those who experienced chronic exposure to air pollution rather than short-term exposure. 

Dr. Mahalingaiah indicated that the risks are small at an individual level. However, Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, a researcher at the Center for Research in Environmental Epidemiology and the Barcelona Institute for Global Health, told Reuters the finding could have a societal impact if a large number of women are exposed to air pollution. Given that a large number of major Indian cities, especially north Indian cities, are among the most polluted in the world, there could be large-scale infertility impacts seen here. However, the U.S. study is one of the first of its kind for tracking air pollution and infertility outcomes over a long-term period, and similar research is yet to be done in India.

Though infertility research is limited here, some work has been done on the impact of air pollution on the health of newborns. In 2014, scholars associated birth delivery data with nearby air pollution quality in Delhi for over 10,500 birth records. The study suggested that dangerous gases commonly found in polluted air could affect the health of newly born babies, leading to weight complications or premature death. Though more robust studies are required to show causation rather than correlation, another previous study by Fleischer et al. conducted across 22 countries suggests that air pollution may lead to low birth weights among babies, but not necessarily premature birth unless air pollution levels are extremely high. The bad news is that air pollution levels are, in fact, extremely high in most Indian cities, which could increase the number of preterm births; India already has the highest number of premature births globally.  Other studies conducted outside of India confirm findings on low birth weight and in some cases, high infant or perinatal mortality.

Overall, there is a wealth of evidence (much of which we haven’t listed here) which suggests negative effects of air pollution on fertility and perinatal or infant health. Though many of these studies need to be replicated in India, it’s likely that the effects will be no different here. In order to reduce negative health outcomes of air pollution, doctors suggest limiting outdoor activity and physical activity when possible. For cleaner air indoors, try one of our air filters!

How visible is India’s air pollution?

Much too visible, according to Astronaut Scott Kelly, who is finishing up his year onboard the International Space Station. On January 12th, Kelly posted the following picture, which shows northern Uttar Pradesh on the left, and the Himalayas and Nepal on the right.

http://twitter.com/StationCDRKelly/status/686824104096350208/photo/1

In December 2014, NASA released a similar picture highlighting the difference in pollution between India and Nepal.

The pictures get part of the story right. Pollution in North India may be much higher than pollution in northern Nepal. 13 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in India, with a large majority in northern India. Though northern Nepal may have better air quality due to the Himalayas, Nepal as a whole may not be significantly better.  Yale’s Environmental Performance Index, which compares air quality among 181 countries, ranked India at 178 and Nepal at 177 – both among the lowest in the world.

Nepal’s low rankings may stem from Kathmandu Valley, whose bowl-shaped topography traps warm, polluted air along with dust and smog. Though the government-installed air monitoring devices in Nepal have been out of order since 2007, a Yale graduate student, Anobha Gurung, conducted PM 2.5 tests in 2009. She found that in certain urban areas, traffic police were exposed to over 500 ug/m3 of PM 2.5 per hour – that’s over 200 times the World Health Organization’s recommended level of 25 ug/m3!

So overall, is Nepal’s air quality that much better than India as the pictures suggest?  Though northern Uttar Pradesh may be worse off than northern Nepal, it’s hard to say. The limited data of Kathmandu and northern Indian cities suggests people may be breathing similar levels of pollution, but we won’t really know until those air monitoring devices in Nepal start working again!