health risks of air pollution

The Health Risks of Air Pollution

By: Staff Reporter
Rising levels of air pollution are posing a health hazard to people worldwide. In 2016, exposure to ambient PM2.5 caused 1.025 million deaths in India. While a number of policies to combat air pollution exists, improper implementation leaves us gasping for the most basic of human needs—air.
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In 2016, exposure to ambient PM2.5 was the cause of 4.1 million deaths worldwide. The ill-effects of air pollution are mostly borne by low and middle-income countries that lack the means to combat or monitor the rising levels of air pollution. About 26 per cent (1.04 million) and 25 per cent
(1.025 million) of global deaths occurred in China and India respectively, collectively bringing the toll in these countries to more than half (51 per cent) of the rest of the world. These two countries were followed by Russia, Pakistan and Bangladesh (HEI, 2018). In another report, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) revealed that over 30 per cent of premature deaths in India are caused by air pollution. Moreover, almost 33 per cent of children in Delhi were found to suffer from impaired lung function (CSE, 2017). Air pollution is known to lead to strokes and ischemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, acute lower respiratory infections and lung cancer.

Measuring air quality

The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) is responsible for measuring the air quality and helps the Central Government in framing appropriate policies. The CPCB provides real-time air quality data for multiple locations in the country along with manual and in some places automatic ambient air quality monitoring. The CPCB is the apex body, with state functionaries that plan comprehensive programmes for prevention and control of pollution in their respective state. The state pollution control boards (SPCB) collaborates with the CPCB to monitor pollution and present the results to their apex body, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) which drafts and promulgates policies based on the data provided.

Jairam Ramesh, former Union Minister of Environment and Forests, currently a member of parliament, speaking to G’nY observes, “true, outdoor air pollution has emerged as a major cause of mortality in India. You have to be ruthless in enforcing standards and regulations. The problem is not lack of standards or regulations—it is their strict enforcement”.

Collaborating with the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM), the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES) has launched the System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR) for air quality monitoring under its monitoring networkSAFAR. Rather than relying on a single source, SAFAR uses multiple micro-environments to calculate the air quality index of the targeted city. The system currently provides pollutant levels of four cities, namely Delhi, Pune, Ahmedabad and Mumbai. At present, the system monitors pollutants such as PM1, PM2.5, PM10, ozone, carbon monoxide (CO), sulphur dioxide (SO2), non-methane hydrocarbons, benzene and mercury. The system also takes into account certain meteorological parameters such as UV radiation, rainfall, temperature and solar radiation (SAFAR, 2015). Viewing pollution as a global problem, many space agencies have launched satellites  which detect and track air pollution. One such satellite is NASA’s Aqua, which in November 2017 tracked dense clouds of smoke due to crop burning over major states of north-India (Burrows, 2018). Satellite imagery can aid policy makers in understanding the true gravity of the pollution hazards in peak-pollution periods.

Speaking with Dr Mukesh Khare, Professor in the Department of Civil Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi (IITD), the G’nY team learnt of a 2016 experiment headed by him working in tandem with experts from IIT Madras along with an industrial partner who has provided 25 per cent of the grant. “The Ministry of Human Resource Development approved a project, SENSurAIR, to indigenously design and manufacture low cost sensors for PM2.5, NO2 and CO in 2016. Such sensors would prove to be an efficient way to monitor levels of pollutants in an ambient environment at places where one cannot install expensive real time air quality monitors”. Dr Khare went onto to add that although the technology was not as accurate as the conventional fixed station monitors, yet, it could prove useful to screen the ambient pollution level and provide insights into seasonal trends. In his opinion, “this can act as an early hazard warning tool and help regulators to take appropriate action to manage exigencies”.  The IITD sensor project is being specifically designed to combat Indian conditions of large temperature variations and high humidity.

What mitigative action has been taken?

Even though we witness interim solutions recurrently, there exists a need for an enduring answer to the ever-growing problem of air pollution. Even with the existence of multiple acts and amendments, the gaps in pollution control still remain. India enacted its Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act in 1981. The objectives of the Act are prevention, control, and abatement of air pollution. The Act also provides the state governments with the power to declare air pollution control areas, restrict the use of certain industrial plants, and give instructions for ensuring standards for emissions from automobiles.

Ironically, only 25 cases were registered in 2016 under the Air Pollution Act, out of which 21 came from Maharashtra, while Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh shared the remaining four. Delhi, which witnessed one of its worst years in regard to pollution levels ironically drew a null in registering a case under this Act (Mohan, 2017). Citing the extreme level of pollution in the national capital, the MoEF&CC introduced an Air Action Plan in the city to catalyse the abatement of air pollution. The plan set forth an agenda to set up a task force under the Chairmanship of Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister. This task force was made responsible for monitoring crop stubble burning, establishing an anti-pollution helpline and taking strict actions against polluting power plants and industries (MoEF&CC, 2017). Delhi faced a pollution crisis in the concluding part of the 2017-2018 winter season when the pollution levels skyrocketed way above the permissible PM2.5 levels fixed by CPCB (Venkat, 2018).

A few measures have been taken to check the growing pollution levels in the capital. In January 2017, the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) was implemented for combating air pollution on a day to day basis (PIB, 2017). Based on the air quality index (ranging from good to severe or emergency) on a given day, certain activities, if causing air pollution are prohibited. A few examples include prohibition of construction activities and implementation of odd-even licence plate scheme during emergency levels, shutting down of Badarpur power plant during severe levels, and a three to four times enhancement of parking fees during very poor levels. Further, in March 2017, when vehicle manufacturers challenged a ban on the sale and manufacture of Bharat Stage III vehicles, the Supreme Court upheld the ban, holding the health of the public as more important than financial interests of manufacturers. The Bharat Stage Emission Standards were implemented by the National Fuel Policy, 2003 with the objective of addressing issues related to vehicular emissions. The policy sought to implement BS-IV standards by 2017, and BS-VI standards by 2020. But while the intentions are commendable, little has been seen in terms of outcome. Delhi reported severe levels of pollution on consecutive days in the winter of 2017-18.


As India battles a severe air pollution crisis, it largely remains an insignificant for government bodies. In the global context, citations of India’s low per-capita carbon emission works to defuse air quality alarm bells. Even when a major part of the country fights with poison in the air, the debates of various fora usher in nothing new in terms of policy. Whilst development is necessary for the growth of a nation, health of the masses cannot be compromised. Rigorous implementation of policies and guidelines are required to provide clean air to all.


Burros L., 2018. Agricultural fires can double Delhi pollution during peak burning season, Harvard. Available at: Accessed on: April. 16, 2018.

Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), 2017. Lifestyle diseases the biggest killer in India today, November 27.

Health Effects Institute (HEI), 2018. State of Global Air 2018: Special Report, Boston, MA: Health Effects Institute.

Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC). Air Action Plan – Abatement of Air Pollution in the Delhi National Capital Region. Available at:

Mohan V., 2017. This is how serious Delhi is about its air, The Times of India, December 6.

Press Information Bureau (PIB), 2017. Graded Action Plan to reduce Urban Air Pollution, March 20.

System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research (SAFAR). SAFAR monitoring network. Available at: Accessed on: April. 16, 2018.

Venkat V., 2018. Pollution exceeds permissible limits: study, The Hindu, January 31.

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