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South Asians 'breathe world’s most polluted air'

In Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan air pollution poses the largest single threat to public health, study shows
Commuters make their way to work as smokes rises from the chimney of a steel re-rolling mill in Narayanganj of Bangladesh on November 10, 2021

Commuters make their way to work as smokes rises from the chimney of a steel re-rolling mill in Narayanganj of Bangladesh on November 10, 2021. (Photo: Munir uz zaman/AFP)

Published: August 30, 2023 08:19 AM GMT
Updated: August 30, 2023 08:47 AM GMT

People in South Asian nations such as Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan are at the risk of losing five years of life expectancy if the current levels of air pollution persist, says a new report.  

The Air Quality Life Index, or AQLI, released on Aug. 29 by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, converts air pollution concentrations, measured using satellites, into their impact on life expectancy. 

Bangladesh was ranked the most polluted country in the world with PM2.5 particulate concentrations of 74 micrograms (µg) in every cubic meter of air in 2021, way higher than what was permitted under the national standard — 15 µg per cubic meter.

PM2.5 is considered as an extremely harmful air particulate to human health. It can cause various health problems including asthma, lung cancer and heart diseases.

The World Health Organization guideline permits the concentration of 5 µg of PM2.5 in a cubic meter of air. 

India became the world’s second most polluted country with a particulate concentration of 58.7 µg in a cubic meter of air, followed by Nepal with PM2.5 concentration of 51.7 µg, and Pakistan 44.7 µg.

"Particulate pollution concentration constituted the single largest threat to human health"

The particulate pollution in Afghanistan, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Maldives also exceeded the WHO guideline.

“The average resident of Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan is exposed to particulate pollution levels that are 51.3 percent higher than at the turn of the century,” said the report.

In each of the four South Asian nations, particulate pollution concentration constituted the single largest threat to human health, dwarfing the health effects of tobacco and alcohol use and unsafe water and sanitation.

Since 2013, some 59.1 percent of the world’s increase in pollution has come from India.

India’ Northern Plains which cover the capital city, Delhi, and is home to more than half a billion people, are most polluted. Residents of the region are on track to lose about 8 years of life expectancy if the air pollution persists, the report warned.

Delhi is the most polluted megacity in the world with annual average particulate pollution of 126.5 μg, more than 25 times the WHO guideline.               

Bangladesh’s most polluted city is Gazipur — the ready made garment industrial hub on the outskirts of Dhaka, with a PM 2.5 concentration of 89.8 μg, said the report. 

The PM2.5 concentration in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka is 87.2 μg.

 "Electricity generation from fossil fuels tripled from 1998 to 2017"

In some of the most polluted districts of Bangladesh, millions of people are at the risk of losing 7.6 years of life expectancy on average.

The report pointed out various factors behind a gradual increase in air pollution in South Asian nations.

Over the past two decades, industrialization, economic development, and population growth have led to skyrocketing energy demand and fossil fuel use across the region, the report said. 

The number of vehicles roughly tripled in Bangladesh from 2010 to 2020, the report said. 

In India and Pakistan, the number of vehicles on the road has increased about four-fold since the early 2000s. 

In Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan combined, electricity generation from fossil fuels tripled from 1998 to 2017, the report said. Other factors, including crop burning, brick kilns, and industrial activities, contribute to rising particulate emissions.

Lahore is the most polluted city in Pakistan where particulate pollution takes off 7.5 years of life expectancy. 

“In South Asian countries the factors influencing the pollution are common — brick production, biomass burning and an underdeveloped transport sector,’ said Ahmad Kamruzzaman Majumder, who teaches environmental science at Stamford University in Bangladesh.

The destruction of rivers and deforestation also contributed to environmental deterioration, he said, advising bilateral and multilateral initiatives for tackling the high levels of pollution.

The AQLI’s latest data reveals that permanently reducing global PM2.5 air pollution to meet the WHO guideline would add 2.3 years to average human life expectancy — or a combined 17.8 billion life years would be saved. 

In 2021, a joint study by four international universities including Harvard University showed Bangladesh had the second highest rate of mortality caused by air pollution after China. 

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