India is currently working on revising its air quality standards that were last updated in 2009. They are set to be released next year.
Over seven million deaths worldwide annually are currently linked to exposure to these pollutants, WHO said.
The new standards will mean 90% of the global population and nearly 100% of people in south Asia live in areas that exceed the pollution threshold. Though these air quality guidelines (AQG) are not legally binding for countries, they may help them come out with their respective benchmarks while factoring in meteorological and topographical elements.
“I urge all countries to put these guidelines to use, save lives, support healthy communities and help address the climate crisis,” said WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
The WHO claimed that “around 80% of deaths attributed to PM2.5 exposure in the world could be avoided if countries attain the annual AQG level for PM2.5”. Among all classical pollutants, inhalable PM2.5 is considered the most hazardous as it gets deposited in lungs through breathing and causes serious respiratory problems.
India is also expected to make these standards stringent through its update. Though it may not be at the level of WHO standards, experts expect it to be, at least, closer to the global standards.
“Air pollution is a severe health crisis and WHO’s revised air quality guidelines bring back focus to the issue. There are no two ways about the need for revising India’s air quality standards to make them more stringent. Even at the current relaxed standard of 40 ug/m3 for annual PM2.5 averages in India vs WHO’s 2005 annual limit of 10 ug/m3, most Indian cities failed to meet even those levels,” said S N Tripathi, professor at IIT Kanpur and steering committee member of the country’s national clean air programme (NCAP).
Tripathi, at the same time, called for strengthening India’s health data. He said, “Raw health data is required to conduct a large range of health studies vis-a-vis air pollution impacts for India’s varied demography, exposure and differing PM2.5 composition. A single exposure prevention response will not suit the Indian population.” Under NCAP, India has a target to reduce 20-30% of PM2.5 and PM10 concentrations by 2024 from 2017 levels.
The release of the guidelines ahead of the 26 th session of the UN climate conference (COP26) assumes significance in view of the ongoing momentum to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) substantially to meet the goal of the Paris Agreement. The Conference is scheduled to be held in Glasgow, UK in November.
Some air pollutants – particularly black carbon (a component of PM) and tropospheric (ground-level) Ozone – are also short-lived climate pollutants, which are linked with both health effects and near-term warming of the planet.
Since they persist in the atmosphere for as little as a few days or months and their reduction has co-benefits not just for health but also for the climate, the WHO said, “Almost all efforts to improve air quality can enhance climate change mitigation, and climate change mitigation efforts can, in turn, improve air quality. Notably, reduction or phase-out of fossil and biomass fuel combustion will reduce GHG emissions as well as health relevant air pollutants.”