India’s Outdoor Air Pollution Is as Bad in Villages as in Cities: Study
India’s rural inhabitants are just as exposed to outdoor air pollution as their city-dwelling counterparts, a new study has found.
Published in Proceedings in the National Academy of Sciences this month, the study was partially funded by NASA. The researchers studied satellite data indicating concentrations of small particulate matter across the country and analyzed it against population densities.
They found that exposure to air pollution was similar for both city and village-dwellers — in both cases, not meeting the World Health Organization’s healthy-air guidelines — with “a long tail of very high concentrations in the urban regions in the Indo-Gangetic plains and parts of non-urban areas in Eastern and Western India.”
The study found that “household cooking with solid fuels” is a significant contributor to outdoor pollution in rural areas. The paper also cited stubble burning, brick kilns, coal-fired factories, agricultural processing, power generation, cement factories, and cottage industries as other sources responsible for polluting the air in non-urban areas.
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Pervasive pollution comes with a wide range of health risks for India, which already reported in 2019 the highest number of infant deaths due to air pollution in the world.
“The health impacts on both rural and urban populations could range from cardio-respiratory, cardiovascular conditions, diabetes, low birthweight, preterm birth and neonatal mortality,” Kalpana Balakrishnan, the director of the Centre for Advanced Research on Air Quality, Climate and Health at the Indian Council of Medical Research, told Hindustan Times. Balakrishnan was not involved in the study.
To understand the health risks better, the researchers focused on premature deaths caused by air pollution in India. They found that while the risk itself was similar in both rural and urban areas, the number of pollution-related premature deaths was higher in rural areas, since 69% of the population lives there.
“Only the very northwestern part of India appears to be below the threshold for PM2.5…. In addition to premature mortality, there are other negative impacts such as asthma, hospital visits, medical costs, etc.,” noted the study’s lead author, Professor Akkihebbel Ravisankara, who specializes in chemistry and atmospheric science at Colorado State University.
“My key message is: Please don’t forget non-urban India when dealing with air pollution. The second key message is: Science, measurements, and analyses can help overcome this problem with good information to the policymakers,” Ravisankara concluded.