Air pollution killed 2.1 million in India in 2021, including over 1.6 million children under five: Report

The report said nearly 50% of all ozone-related chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) deaths in 2021 were recorded in India (2,37,000), followed by China (1,25,600) and Bangladesh (15,000).
A thick smog blankets the national capital amid severe AQI levels in Delhi.
A thick smog blankets the national capital amid severe AQI levels in Delhi.FILE Photo | PTI

In 2021, air pollution was a major global killer, contributing to 8.1 million deaths worldwide. India and China bore the brunt of this crisis, with staggering death tolls of 2.1 million and 2.3 million, respectively, according to the State of Global Air Report 2024 released on Wednesday.

The report, published by the US-based Health Effects Institute (HEI) in partnership with UNICEF, also highlighted the devastating impact on young children. In 2021, air pollution contributed to over 7 lakh deaths among children under the age of five, accounting for 15% of all global deaths in this age group.

In India alone, air pollution claimed the lives of 1,69,400 children under the age of five in 2021. Nigeria followed with 1,14,100 child deaths, Pakistan with 68,100, Ethiopia with 31,100, and Bangladesh with 19,100, it said.

The report said nearly 50 percent of all ozone-related chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) deaths in 2021 were recorded in India (2,37,000 deaths), followed by China (1,25,600) and Bangladesh (15,000).

The report also said that air pollution was the second most prominent reason for deaths globally and the leading risk factor in South Asia, followed by high blood pressure, diet, and tobacco.

It was the second leading risk factor for death among children under five in 2021, after malnutrition.

The State of Global Air 2024 reports provides a comprehensive analysis of data for air quality and health impacts for countries around the world in 2021.
The State of Global Air 2024 reports provides a comprehensive analysis of data for air quality and health impacts for countries around the world in 2021.Credit: stateofglobalair.org

The report noted, "The year 2021 saw more deaths linked to air pollution than were estimated for any previous year. With populations over 1 billion each, India (2.1 million deaths) and China (2.3 million deaths) together account for 54 percent of the total global disease burden."

Other countries with high impacts included Pakistan (2,56,000 deaths), Bangladesh (2,36,300) and Myanmar (1,01,600 deaths) in South Asia; Indonesia (2,21,600 deaths), Vietnam (99,700 deaths), and the Philippines (98,209) in Southeast Asia; and Nigeria (2,06,700 deaths) and Egypt (1,16,500 deaths) in Africa.

A thick smog blankets the national capital amid severe AQI levels in Delhi.
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Taken together, air pollution from PM2.5 and ozone was estimated to contribute to 8.1 million deaths—about 12 percent of the total global deaths—in 2021.

More than 90 percent of these global air pollution deaths—7.8 million people—are attributed to PM2.5 pollution, including from ambient PM2.5 and household air pollution.

These tiny particles, measuring less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter, are so small they remain in the lungs and can enter the bloodstream, affecting many organ systems and increasing the risks for noncommunicable diseases in adults such as heart ailment, stroke, diabetes, lung cancer, and COPD.

According to the report, PM2.5 has been found to be the most consistent and accurate predictor of poor health outcomes around the world.

"We hope our State of Global Air report provides both the information and the inspiration for change," said HEI President Elena Craft.

"Air pollution has enormous implications for health. We know that improving air quality and global public health is practical and achievable," Craft said.

"This new report offers a stark reminder of the significant impacts air pollution has on human health, with far too much of the burden borne by young children, older populations, and low- and middle-income countries," said Pallavi Pant, HEI's Head of Global Health.

"This points sharply to an opportunity for cities and countries to consider air quality and air pollution as high-risk factors when developing health policies and other noncommunicable disease prevention and control programs," Pant said.

Exposure to air pollution significantly affects young children, promoting conditions such as pneumonia, which is responsible for one in five child deaths worldwide, and asthma, the most common chronic respiratory disease among older children, UNICEF said.

The inequalities in the impact of air pollution on children's health are stark. The death rate from air pollution among children under five in East, West, Central, and Southern Africa is 100 times higher than that of their counterparts in high-income countries, it added referencing the report.

"Despite progress in maternal and child health, almost 2,000 children under the age of five die every day due to the effects of air pollution on their health,” said Kitty van der Heijden, deputy director general of UNICEF. 

"Our inaction has far-reaching implications for the health and well-being of the next generation. The global emergency is undeniable. It is imperative that governments and businesses consider these estimates and locally available data and use them to take meaningful, child-focused action to reduce air pollution and protect their health," she added.

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