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India is challenging China for most toxic air in the world

India is now challenging China for a dubious distinction: home of the most toxic air on the planet.

Given ubiquitous smoggy photos of Beijing and environs, it’s probably no shock to anyone that China has long had the most deaths attributed to air pollution. But while China is stabilizing its air pollution death rate — estimated at 1.1 million people a year — India has caught up.

Deaths in India related to polluted air rose 50 percent from 1990 to 2015 to 1.1 million per year, about the same number in China, according to a report from the Health Effects Institute.


Air pollution caused 4.2 million premature deaths around the world in 2015, up from 3.5 million in 1990, according to the organization. Over half of those deaths, 2.2 million, occurred in China and India.

One of the study’s authors, Michael Brauer, told the New York Times the increase in air pollution in India is the result of rapid industrialization, population growth, and an aging population more vulnerable to health effects from air pollution.

Though images of masked commuters and thick smog are synonymous with China, the death rate from air pollution there is leveling off, but India’s pollution problem is worsening, and without policies targeting the problem, shows no signs of abating.

“The idea that policymaking should be led by government is lacking,” Bhargav Krishna, a manager for environmental health at the Public Health Foundation of India, told the New York Times.

The report used two measures of outdoor air pollution: ambient fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, and ozone. Exposure to PM2.5 was the fifth-highest-ranking risk factor for death, the report said, responsible for deaths from heart disease, strokes, lung cancer, chronic lung disease, and respiratory infections.

Other takeaways from the report include:

  • Over 90 percent of the world’s population lives in areas with unhealthy air.
  • Exposure to PM2.5 ranks fifth worldwide among all health risks, including smoking, diet, and high blood pressure.
  • Among the 10 most populated countries and the EU, Bangladesh and India have the highest exposures to PM2.5 and have experienced the steepest increases in the particle since 2010.
  • Although the number of deaths has increased, the death rate has not kept up with population growth, thanks to policies targeting reduced emissions and improved healthcare in the U.S., Europe, and other countries.
  • Concentrations were lowest in Brunei, Sweden, Greenland, New Zealand, Australia, Finland, Canada, and several Pacific and Caribbean island nations.
  • Coal-burning by industry, power plants, and for home heating accounted for 40 percent of PM2.5 exposures and an estimated 366,000 deaths in 2013.