We’re Killing Ourselves With Air Pollution

Kids in Delhi cover their faces as they walk to school amid heavy smog
Kids in Delhi cover their faces as they walk to school amid heavy smog
Photo: Sajjad Hussain (Getty Images)

When I was visiting family in New Delhi a couple of years ago, I opened the weather app on my phone and saw something weird. Instead of “sunny” or “cloudy,” there was a forecast of “smoke.” I asked my cousins if there had been a major fire nearby or something, but they laughed and informed me that due to the high level of pollution in the air, they saw that forecast all the time.


The city regularly has some of the most polluted air on Earth, but it’s hardly alone. And according to new research from the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute, all that pollution is literally taking years off people’s lives.

The new Air Quality Index report, released Tuesday, found poor air quality is “the greatest risk to human health” around the globe. From 1998 to 2018, the average person was exposed to particulate pollution concentrations nearly three times higher than those considered safe by the World Health Organization. As a result, particulate air pollution cut human life expectancy by an average of two years.

Globally, most particulate matter—soot, smoke, dust, and other solid and liquid particles suspended in the air–comes from fossil fuel use for transportation and dirty energy. In some regions, such as Southeast Asia, forest and peat fires are also major contributors. The particles are tiny, but they can have a huge effect on respiratory systems and heart health.

In places with particularly high levels of particulate matter in the air, the toll is even higher. Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan are the world four most polluted countries—and where nearly a quarter of the global population resides. Air pollution there is 44% higher than it was just 20 years ago and has reduced life expectancy by 5 years on average.

Amid the covid-19 crisis, air pollution is a particularly concerning problem. An increasing body of literature shows air pollution is making people more likely to get sick and die from the virus. As the report notes, the pandemic has lowered demand for fuel and reduced transportation congestion in countries around the world. As a result, many places have seen massive reductions in air pollution. But as areas reopen, many countries are seeing air quality levels plummet to pre-pandemic levels or even worse.


The report authors urge governments to implement stronger regulations now to prevent further devastation from air pollution. Conveniently, strong regulations on emissions would also help the planet to avert climate catastrophe.

“Though the threat of coronavirus is grave and deserves every bit of the attention it is getting, embracing the seriousness of air pollution with a similar vigor would allow billions of people to lead longer and healthier lives,” Michael Greenstone, creator of the Air Quality Life Index, said in a statement. “The solution lies in robust public policy.”


Earther staff writer. Blogs about energy, animals, why we shouldn't trust the private sector to solve the climate crisis, etc. Has an essay in the 2021 book The World We Need.


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An interesting discussion from EHS Journal back in 2016. BTW EHS is Environment, Health and Safety. EHS Journal is more practitioner focussed (e.g. environmental consulting) than say academic in scope.

India: Environmental Compliance through an Auditor’s Lens

The gist of the article is that there’s essentially a gap exists between the idea and the act when it comes to environmental protection.

An interesting background on India’s environmental laws from the author in the intro:

India has a parliamentary form of government with separate executive, legislative and judicial branches. The Indian constitution is one of the few in the world that contains provision relating to environment conservation. Article 21 of the Constitution of India guarantees the right to life and personal liberty as a fundamental right. The Supreme Court of India in 1978 breathed substantive life to this Article in the case of Maneka Gandhi vs. Union of India (1978). In the case Subhash Kumar vs. State of Bihar (1991), the Supreme Court of India declared that Article 21 “includes the right of enjoyment of pollution free water and air for full enjoyment of life”. Since then right to live in a healthy environment has emerged as an inherent part of the Right to Life enshrined in Article 21. Introduction of the Public Interest Litigation (PIL), concept in India led to consequent liberalisation of locus standi[2]. The first PIL on environmental issues in the country before the Supreme Court of India was the case, Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra vs. State of UP (1988).

The above discussion concludes with:

India has a number of Acts and Rules along with national and sub-national policies and standards covering various environmental aspects. Environmental Democracy Index (EDI)[3] ranked India at the 20th position out of 70 countries by acknowledging India’s progress in enacting national laws to promote environmental democracy. However, the country does lack on the implementation and enforcement front of these laws and regulations.