Air Pollutions Plague

India's battle with household and outdoor air pollution

As each year passes, India's air pollution problem seemingly is not going away. Headlines such as 2017's 'The Great Smog of Delhi' grab our attention and bombard us with statistics of the ultimate human and health costs. As climate change's impacts ballon across the planet, air pollutions part in this ongoing story is of great concern considering its direct contribution to this global problem. 


However, air pollution in India and its impact on public health is arguably a more timely and important issue. This thorn in the side of social development across India has its largest impact on women and children, as their proximity to direct indoor air pollution from cooking fires is compounded by outdoor exposure from air pollution sourced from the burning of fossil fuels. 


Air pollution is a term that covers several different substances that includes gases, heavy metals and particulates mixed with the air we breathe. These are all linked to severe chronic and acute medical conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, ischemic heart disease, lower respiratory infections, chronic bronchitis and tuberculosis. The effects of these long-term conditions are doubled by the presence of pollutants which cause the onset of coughing, sore eyes, and inflamed throats. This is a harsh reality faced by hundreds of millions of people every day.


Globally, the World Health Organization estimated in 2019 that air pollution is responsible for over 7 million deaths from both indoor and outdoor exposure. But one statistic haunts India, as studies show that in between 756 to 815 million people are still reliant on biomass fuels such as wood and dried dung, along with coal for cooking and heating. This figure is almost double the population of the European Union and presents a significant public health challenge to India where the health system is already facing pressures due to the large population of the sub-continent. 


In India alone, indoor and outdoor air pollution contributes to over 1 million deaths every year with almost half of these being women and children due to their household duties such as cooking. For children, impacts extend further outside of homes, as air pollution exposure in young children is linked to brain and cognitive development, which have wide-reaching impacts such as their ability to learn at school. 


Despite the current situation, air pollutions impacts on people's lives in India has progressively improved as the nation grows richer. With more resources, each household has improved access to cleaner-burning fuels. For example, in 2015 a study estimated that 875,000 deaths could be attributed to indoor air pollution in India, whereas the latest estimates place the figure at 480,000 just five years later. However,  huge barriers reamain. To overcome and be solely reliant on the nation growing in wealth over time and bringing people out of energy and fuel poverty is too slow and has too high a price on human potential. Much more is needed and on a grander scale.  

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Ashley Crowther is an Asia based documentary photographer and photojournalist and is one of the foremost storytellers documenting climate change through photography. | @ashleycrowtherorg