In the News

April 19, 2022

In South Asia, Vehicle Exhaust, Agricultural Burning and In-Home Cooking Produce Some of the Most Toxic Air in the World

The Air Quality Life Index estimates hazardous air quality levels have reduced life expectancy throughout the Indo-Gangetic plain by seven years.
Zoha Tunio

In 2014, the World Health Organization reported that New Delhi was one of the most polluted cities in the world, with dangerous levels of fine particulate matter pollution, known as PM2.5. Ever since, New Delhi has been synonymous with hazardous air quality. 

Over the last few years the air quality levels in one of the world’s fastest growing metropolises have ebbed and flowed, but for the most part New Delhi’s pollution levels remain higher than most cities across the world. 

Now, the Swedish air quality monitoring company IQAir has released its annual World Air Quality report for the year 2021, again ranking New Delhi among the most polluted cities in the world and the most polluted capital city for a fourth consecutive year. IQAir also found that South Asia was the world’s most polluted region, where PM2.5 emissions from vehicle exhaust, commerce, the burning of stalks and other crop residue after harvest season and in-home cooking with solid fuels all combine to dangerously degrade air quality. 

“You can barely see the leaves anymore, there’s a layer of dust that covers them all the time,” said Renu Singh, 39, a Ph.D student at Dr. B. R. Ambedkar University Delhi, describing the visible effects of air pollution in the city. 

Singh, who has lived in Delhi for most of her life, has seen the city grow into a metropolitan area of more than 30 million people. Data suggests Delhi’s population will likely surpass Tokyo’s by the year 2030 and reach 39 million. And as the city continues to grow, so does its air pollution problem. 

According to the 2019 Air Quality Life Index published by the University of Chicago, residents in Delhi would lose more than nine years of life expectancy if pollution levels from 2019 persist. The World Health Organization associates many short- and long-term health risk factors with exposure to PM2.5, tiny droplets of pollution smaller than 2.5 microns—about one-thirtieth the diameter of a human hair—that irritate the eyes, nose and lungs, aggravate asthma and other respiratory diseases and increase the risk of death from lung cancer and heart disease.

These particles come from vehicle exhaust, the burning of fuels such as wood, heating oil or coal, and natural sources such as grass and wildfires. 

The University of Chicago Air Quality Life Index estimates hazardous air quality levels have reduced life expectancy throughout the Indo-Gangetic plain by seven years. One of the most densely populated regions in the world, the plain is home to more than 500 million people and the hub for small, medium and large scale economic activity in South Asia. 

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