Global experts call for new approach to tackle air pollution

Delegates gather for the workshop at the Indian Habitat Centre, Delhi

University of Birmingham experts have joined forces with policy makers and researchers in India, and beyond, to call for a new approach to help resolve health, social and economic problems associated with air pollution in Delhi and other similarly polluted regions.

Delegates at a two-day workshop, convened by Dr. William Avis and Prof. Francis Pope, from the University of Birmingham, and Prof. Mukesh Khare, from the India Institute of Technology, Delhi, called for air quality metrics to be incorporated into several of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals, most notably SDG3 – Good Health and Well-being.

The conference, held in the Indian capital, also proposed that air pollution be treated as a disaster, in the same way as natural events such as earthquakes and forest fires.

It also called for access to clean air to be considered as a basic human right, as researchers at the workshop launched a special scoping study which highlights the health threat to an estimated 46,000 or more people living and working on the streets of Delhi.

The city’s pavement dweller community is mirrored in other Indian cities – thousands of men, women and children at risk of serious illness and death because of their constant exposure to dangerous levels of air pollution.

A research team led by Dr William Avis and involving Monika Walia and Dr Bidhu Mahapatra, from Population Council – India, studied several locations. They discovered that pavement dwellers were frequently exposed to severe or hazardous levels of particulate matter (PM) air pollution which could lead to conditions such as acute or chronic lung disease – one of the most common causes of death among this group of citizens.

The ASAAP India (A Systems Approach to Air Pollution India) workshop brought together partners from India, Africa, Asia, Europe and US to explore how cities such as Delhi can better understand how to tackle air pollution.

Together with IIT Delhi (IITD), All India Disaster Mitigation Institute (AIDMI), Population Council – India, and Urban Management Centre (UMC), University of Birmingham experts led the workshop, which was attended by British Deputy High Commissioner Jan Thompson.

Workshop delegates also called for:

  • Policy on the welfare of pavement dwellers against high level air pollution exposure;
  • Inclusion of Air Pollution as Disaster; and
  • National Clean Air Programme for effective implementation

Professor Francis Pope, from the University of Birmingham, said: “Air pollution kills millions and costs the world economy billions - tackling the problem is not just a technological issue, but a social-economic and social-political challenge that requires a new approach.

“The University of Birmingham is working with partners in India, Africa and Asia to help understand how our cities can tackle problems caused by air pollution. Many conference delegates were surprised there is no SDG specific to clean air, but there is plenty of scope to include clean air action many of the SDGs.”

Professor Mukesh Khare, from IIT Delhi said: “It is vital that we find solutions to the global threat posed by air pollution. It is more than just a health risk; it slows our countries’ development, diminishes the quality of life and reduces incomes.

“Air quality need not have its own UN Sustainable Development Goal, but is extremely important for SDG3 – ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all. Placing air quality metrics in relevant SDGs could help to improve life for millions of people.”

Key contributors to air pollution in Delhi are vehicles; construction, road dust, burning of solid waste, crop burning in Northern Indian states and, during Diwali, fireworks.

‘Vulnerability Scoping Study: Air Pollution Exposure of Pavement Dwellers in Delhi’ was unveiled at the workshop and recommends a range of actions to improve the situation facing the city’s pavement dwellers including:

  • Wider support at all government levels for implementing the National Clean Air Programme;
  • Targeted support from civil society groups for pavement dwellers to help tackle the causes of homelessness; and
  • Information to help pavement dwellers reduce exposure to air pollution.

The workshop brought together representatives of local and national Indian government, academia, civil society and the international development community.

It involved experts from multiple countries, including Kenya (University of Nairobi), Uganda (Uganda National Roads Authority), Ethiopia (Ethiopian Public Health Institute) and a range of cities of the global south, including Dhaka and Kathmandu.

British Deputy High Commissioner to India, Jan Thompson OBE, commented: “Air pollution is a challenge shared by many countries and major cities across the world. The UK has recently launched a new Clean Air strategy for the UK. The problem is particularly acute in India and Delhi because of the pace of development and the specific meteorological and geographical conditions.

"A multi-pronged effort is needed to understand the sources and processes causing this pollution. We are working with Indian partners on joint research that we hope will contribute to better understanding the processes that determine air quality over Delhi, providing new and key insights into pollutant sources, emissions, transport mechanisms, and health impacts in order to develop better informed mitigation options.”

ENDS

For more information, interviews or a copy of the research study, please contact Tony Moran, International Communications Manager, University of Birmingham on +44 (0) 121 414 8254 or +44 (0)782 783 2312. Out-of-hours, please call +44 (0) 7789 921 165.

Notes to Editors

  • The University of Birmingham is ranked amongst the world’s top 100 institutions, its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers and teachers and more than 6,500 international students from over 150 countries.
  • The Indian Institute of Technology Delhi (IIT Delhi) is a world-renowned public engineering institution located in Hauz Khas, Delhi. Established in 1961, it was formally inaugurated August 1961 by Prof. Humayun Kabir, Minister of Scientific Research & Cultural Affairs.
  • The event was held at the Indian Habitat Centre, builds on Birmingham’s research in Indian and East African cities to explore solutions to a problem that kills up to 7.3 million people every year - one-in-ten global deaths. Air pollution also creates an annual cost to the world economy of $225 billion. It focussed on a number of air pollution-related problems experienced by people living in cities in the global south, including:
  • Health and air pollution – impacts in India, Kathmandu and East Africa
  • Causes and effects of crop waste burning in northern Indian states
  • Disaster risk reduction and air pollution
  • Impact of air pollution on India’s tourist industry
  • Communicating effectively with the public about air pollution – Nepal and India
  • Delhi’s air quality is notoriously bad: After Diwali celebrations, levels of PM2.5 (fine particles in the air) have reached over 750 micrograms per cubic meter – which may be compared with levels in Birmingham of 10 – 20, and WHO guideline average limits of 25 micrograms per cubic meter. The associated human health, wellbeing and amenity impacts are severe, with air pollution linked to 1 in 10 of the city’s deaths (Nature, 2016).
  • Air pollution is a global environmental health threat contributing to an estimated three million deaths per year worldwide (Lelieveld et al., 2015). The Global Burden of Disease project (World Bank & IHME, 2016) estimates a figure for premature deaths closer to 5.5 million (one in every ten and the fourth highest factor for causing early death). The World Health Organisation reports that in 2012 seven million people died - one in eight of total global deaths - as a result of air pollution exposure (WHO, 2014).
  • The effects of air pollution on human health are well documented in a range of epidemiological studies; exposure increases the risk of lung cancer, heart disease, bronchitis and other cardiorespiratory conditions (Kelly & Fussell, 2015). The economic cost of this health loss is also significant, the World Bank estimates that globally in 2013 air pollution led to an estimated $5.11 trillion in welfare losses, and $225 billion in lost labour income (World Bank & IHME, 2016).
  • The existing ASAAP-Delhi project is led by the University of Birmingham and IIT Delhi and funded by the Academy of Medical Sciences via the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF). It involves field measurements producing data to quantify specific natural and anthropogenic sources responsible for PM in Delhi.
  • MRC invests in research on behalf of the UK tax payer. Scientists apply to MRC for funding for their research and applications are reviewed by panels of independent experts. Its work ranges from laboratory research to research with people, such as clinical trials and population studies. Research is carried out in universities, hospitals and a network of dedicated establishments across the UK and Africa.