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India faces the highest health burden of air pollution in the world due to its high particulate pollution concentrations and large population, according to a new Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) released on Tuesday. Additionally, the report released by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC) stated that air pollution shortens average Indian life expectancy by five years, relative to what it would be if the World Health Organisation guidelines were met. As per the WHO guidelines, the average annual PM2.5 concentration should be no higher than five micrograms per cubic metre (5 g/m3).
Globally, air pollution reduces 2.2 years off average life expectancy, relative to a world that met the WHO guideline (5 g/m3). This impact on life expectancy is comparable to that of smoking, more than three times that of alcohol use and unsafe water, six times that of HIV/AIDS, and 89 times that of conflict and terrorism.
The Indo-Gangetic plains, where about 40 per cent of Indians live, is the most polluted region in India, with an annual average PM2.5 concentration of 76.2 micrograms per cubic metre in 2020, as per the report.
Further, it said that more than 50 crore residents of Indo-Gangetic plains are on track to lose 7.6 years of life expectancy on average if current pollution levels persist. The residents of Lucknow are expected to lose 9.5 years of life expectancy due to air pollution.
Those living in Delhi, the most polluted mega city in the world, stand to lose 10 years of life expectancy if the current air pollution level persists, the report said. The average annual PM2.5 levels in the national capital is reported to be above 107 micrograms per cubic metre or more than 21 times the WHO guidelines.
As per the report, 97.3 per cent of the global population (740 crore people) live in areas where the PM2.5 level exceeds the WHO's guidelines.
The deadly impact of pollution is more visible in South Asia, where more than half of the life burden of pollution occurs. Almost all of Southeast Asia (99.9 per cent) is now considered to have unsafe levels of pollution.
Similarly, more than 97 per cent of Central and West Africa is considered unsafe by the WHO's new guidelines, with air pollution is now regarded as dangerous as well-known killers in the region like HIV/AIDS and malaria, as fossil fuel use is only expected to grow.
India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal -- where nearly a quarter of the global population lives -- remain among the top five most-polluted countries in the world.
AQLI Director Christa Hasenkopf said, "By updating the AQLI with the new WHO guideline based on the latest science, we have a better grasp on the true cost we are paying to breathe polluted air."
"Now that our understanding of pollution's impact on human health has improved, there is a stronger case for governments to prioritize it as an urgent policy issue," he added.
Michael Greenstone, creator of the AQLI along with colleagues at EPIC, also noted that in many places around the planet, like the United States, "strong policies, supported by an equally strong willingness for change, have succeeded in reducing air pollution."
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