May 11, 2016

Indoor and outdoor air pollution contributes to about 10 million premature deaths each year

In 2014, Prof Michael Greenstone and colleagues from Harvard University and MIT partnered with the government in Gujarat, India, to reduce industrial pollution. The study found that making environmental auditors more independent improves the accuracy of audit reports; the reforms reduced pollution by 28 percent. Authorities in Gujarat later adopted the reforms as state law.

The success in Gujarat prompted Greenstone to launch EPIC-India to collaborate with Indian policymakers in taking on energy and environmental challenges through cross-disciplinary, innovative research to make people’s lives better.

In India’s state of Bihar, home to 100 million people, per capita electricity consumption is just about 1 percent of U.S. per capita consumption. To expand energy access, Greenstone and his colleagues are working with the state-owned electricity distribution company to test whether a collective incentive can be used to increase payment rates, reduce distribution losses, and enable the utility to expand electricity supply.

“Michael has pushed the area of energy and environmental economics to new levels with his empirical innovativeness and rigor,” says John List, chairman and the Homer J. Livingston Distinguished Service Professor of Economics.

Pollution and life expectancy

In 2002, Greenstone began analyzing the Clean Air Act and its impact on air quality and human health, as well as on industrial activity and home prices. He discovered that the health research ran into a major obstacle: “We just didn’t have a setting where we could see people’s lifetime exposure to air pollution.”

Then he learned of a government program in China, the Huai River policy, in which the government subsidized coal for heating for people living north of the Huai River and forbade winter heating south of it. The policy, which enabled northerners to have free winter heating, led to serious air pollution in the north.

“The policy took effect in the period when people were really not allowed to migrate,” Greenstone says. “It means that northerners had been exposed to extraordinary air pollution concentrations their whole lives.”

Greenstone and his colleagues found that those living in the north saw their lifespans cut short by about five years compared to those in the south. He has applied the same metric from this study to India, finding that air pollution there is cutting lifespans short by 3.2 years for more than 650 million people.

“We can now say with much greater confidence that long-run exposure to air pollution, especially particulates, shortens lives,” Greenstone says. “I think our work has joined a larger effort to put a fine point on the consequences of these high levels of pollution and has helped crystallize people’s emerging concerns in China, with a similar process beginning to take hold in India.”

China has since widened its air-quality monitoring rules and declared a “war on pollution.”

Air pollution is a global public health problem. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared air pollution the world’s single largest environmental health risk and attributed around 7 million deaths globally to air pollution in 2012. The Global Burden of Disease 2010 report estimated that ambient particulate matter air pollution accounts for about 6% of global deaths.

Some researchers estimate the effects of particle pollutants killed 3.15 million individuals in 2010, with strokes (cerebrovascular disease) and heart attacks (ischemic heart disease) contributing most heavily. Analysis of ozone related mortality revealed a total estimate of 3.30 million people dying prematurely in 2010. An additional 3.54 million deaths per year are attributed to indoor air pollution caused by the use of solid fuels such as coal. Combined indoor and outdoor air pollution deaths would then be 10 million per year. Air quality had gotten worse from 2010 to 2015.

Air pollution in India is severe. Data from the country’s apex environmental regulator, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), reveals that 77% of Indian urban agglomerations exceeded national ambient air quality standards for respirable suspended particulate matter (PM10) in 2010 (CPCB 2012). Estimates from the World Health Organization (WHO) suggest that 13 of the 20 cities in the world with the worst fine particulate (PM2.5) air pollution are in India, including Delhi, the worst-ranked city. India has the highest rate of death caused by chronic respiratory diseases anywhere in the world.

India's pollution board identified road dust as the biggest contributor (52.5%) to particulate matter in Delhi’s air, followed by industries (22.1%). The study attributed only 6.6% of particulate emissions to vehicles. For NOx, the study found industries contributed 79% and vehicles 18%; vehicles were the main source for CO and hydrocarbons: 59% and 50% respectively.

SOURCES - University of Chicago, India Express, Nature

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