Air pollution kills, but where is the data?

By Nabeela Khan Inayati

Published on: 10 November, 2017

Dirty air doesn't directly kill people. But its impact does. The WHO report claimed that 2.5 million Indians died due to air pollution in 2015 alone - the largest number of pollution deaths in the world. Same year the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet said that India along with China made up for over 50 per cent deaths in the world due to ambient air pollution.

The report, published by the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, said that pollution consumes about 7 per cent of the medical expenses in the middle-income countries and welfare losses due to pollution go up to 4.6 trillion US dollars in a year.

Within global medical fraternity there is an agreement that air pollution is one of the largest environmental causes of disease and death in the world.

However the government’s response in India to such reports has been apathy and denial.

In August 2016 Anil Madhav Dave (the then environment minister), in a written reply to the parliament, said that there is no conclusive data available in the country to establish direct relationship between air pollution and deaths.

“Health effects of air pollution are synergistic manifestation of factors which include food habits, occupational habits, socio-economic status, medical history, immunity, heredity etc of the individuals”, he told the parliament. “Air pollution could be one of the triggering factors for respiratory associated ailments and diseases.”

Union Health Minister Jagat Prakash Nadda echoed similar views. He told the parliament in March 2016 that “the data regarding number of people suffering from diseases due to exposure to polluted air and deaths occurred there from is not centrally maintained.”

But the data is not maintained by the states as well.

Though many states now collect air pollution data, there is no mechanism to collect data related to diseases and deaths caused by air pollution.

Part of the problem is that almost 80% deaths in India are not medically certified.  Majority of people die at home and there are no medically certified details about their illness and death. The official time series data on medical certification of cause of death for the years 1986 to 2013 reveals the share of medically certified deaths in total registered deaths has been hovering around 12.8 –20.1 per cent. So there is a lot of missing information about what people die of in India.

While there is so much debate about air pollution in the country, there are no actual numbers about its human toll.

The National Green Tribunal has rebuked the Delhi government over its handling of the pollution crisis and why it has not taken any action in the past one year to improvise the air pollution crisis. But pollution is not Delhi’s problem alone.

According to a recent World Health Organization report, though the capital has six times the levels of airborne particulate matter than are considered safe. Other cities in the country are only slightly better off. The same WHO report reveals that 13 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in India.

There is an urgent need of data collection at national level about air pollution and its impact on human health.

The data about diseases and deaths due to air pollution can be important indicator for evidence-based monitoring of health in the population. It can be essential in improving the methods of diagnosis and analysis as well. Data can play a huge role in shaping policies and responses to public health emergencies such as air pollution levels in Delhi.

It was data from an air-quality monitor from one of the foreign embassies in Delhi in 2014 that generated first serious conversation about air pollution levels in Delhi.