GENEVA, Switzerland — India's toxic air has been linked to the premature deaths of close to 1,10,000 deaths of children in 2016, a World Health Organisation (WHO) report, released on the eve of the first-ever conference on air pollution and health, estimates.
The effects are particularly pronounced for very young kids, with children under the age of five years accounting for about 1,00,000 of the total child deaths in India. Girls under five years of age accounted for 54% of the child mortalities, while boys accounted for 46%.
World wide, the WHO estimated that 7 million premature deaths worldwide were linked to air pollution, of which nearly 6,00,000 were children. The report captures the effects of exposure to particulate matter that is 2.5 microns or less in diameter (PM2.5). These particles enter through the lungs but are so fine, a fraction of the thickness of human hair, they can penetrate into the bloodstream.
The report compiles evidence on a host of impacts including poor birth outcomes, infant mortality, adverse effects on neurodevelopment, weight issues, respiratory effects and cancers, concluding that air pollution impacts children in 'uniquely damaging ways.'
In India, almost all children under the age of 5 breathe polluted air and women especially in rural areas are subject to high levels of household air pollution.
Ambient and household air pollution disproportionately impact children below the age of five years, and girls, the report found, and can potentially harm unborn babies of pregnant women exposed to foul air.
"Something that is new and worries us is all the issues at birth and birth outcomes," Maria Neira, Director, Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, WHO, said at the launch of the report. "What is also critical is the issue of neurodevelopment, imagine our children will have less IQ."
"A country cannot say that they want to develop economically, they have to pollute — that is not true. You can still have a very good economic development without destroying the environment, without destroying the lungs and hearts of your people," Neira added.
In India, almost all children under the age of five breathe polluted air and women especially in rural areas are subject to high levels of household air pollution.
A study from Tamil Nadu cited in the document showed that for every 10 μg/m3 (microgram per cubic metre) increase in exposure to PM2.5 during pregnancy, there was a related decrease in birth weight of 4g and a heightened risk of 2% in low birth weight prevalence.
"New and emerging evidence on effects of ambient and household air pollution on birth weight in India make it necessary for us to address air pollution as a risk factor for both Non-Communicable Diseases and maternal and child health," Kalpana Balakrishnan, lead author of the Tamil Nadu study and a WHO specialist advisor for the conference, said.
The use of wood and dung as a cooking fuel is particularly detrimental to the health of adult women and children. For pregnant women, it increases the chances of giving birth to babies who are smaller than what is normal for a given duration of gestation, research quoted in the report found.
Another study from India found a correlation between household air pollution caused by solid fuel burning and the risk of contracting tuberculosis in children below five years. The report called for further research in this area.
"Expansion of LPG access in India affords an unprecedented opportunity to reduce the impacts from household air pollution on maternal health in addition to well-known impacts like COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) on women and child pneumonia," Balakrishnan said.
Over three days starting Tuesday top health and air pollution experts from across the world will gather in Geneva to highlight the gravity of the issue and brainstorm on ways to tackle sources of air pollution and shed light on health impacts.
"The first-ever conference on air pollution and health by WHO speaks of the urgency to act on rising pollution levels. It attains more importance in geographies like India where more than a million people lose their lives to the health emergency."
One of the key aims of the conference is to focus on the co-benefits of transitioning away from sources that emit both air pollutants and greenhouse gases like black carbon and ozone (O3).
"The first-ever conference on air pollution and health by WHO speaks of the urgency to act on rising pollution levels. It attains more importance in geographies like India where more than a million people lose their lives to the health emergency," Sunil Dahiya, an air pollution campaigner with Greenpeace India, said.
A WHO assessment released earlier this year found that 14 out of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in India. A long-delayed national plan to clean up the air in 100 most polluted cities in India, is yet to be finalised after it was panned by air pollution activists for being weak and failing to set time-bound targets.
At the conference stakeholders including governments, heads of international organisations, city representatives and NGOs have been invited to make voluntary commitments towards reducing air pollution. The commitments would be formally announced on the last day of the conference.
India's environment minister, Harsh Vardhan, did not respond to calls for a comment on the findings and the government's intentions to make commitments.