Pollution kills 9 million people a year. How is that okay?

  • Published on May 10th, 2020

Last December, a Delhi man convicted of rape and murder stood in front of the Indian Supreme Court and argued that, in light of the city’s staggering pollution problem, he should be spared the death penalty. The air quality is “like a gas chamber,” he said in a petition. The water is “full of poison.” Why sentence him to death, he argued, when pollution was already cutting his life short?

smog air pollution

By Pranav Reddy

The argument was both absurd and ineffective. But it reflects an underlying truth: In India and across the globe, people are increasingly concerned about the health impacts of cities’ worsening pollution.

Air quality levels in Delhi reached “severe” levels twice last December, just one month after a worsening air quality index led doctors to declare a public health emergency in the city and schools were shut down. The smog-filled air during these times was as damaging to the lungs as smoking more than a pack of cigarettes a day, according to research by the climate research nonprofit Berkeley Earth.

Similar crises are playing out from Beijing to Baltimore. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 80 percent of people living in urban areas where the air is monitored experience unsafe levels of pollution, and 98 percent of cities in low- and middle-income countries don’t meet WHO guidelines for air quality. A 2017 report from the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health revealed that pollution accounts for nine million premature deaths a year — roughly 16 percent of the global death count and more than the number of deaths due to war or hunger.

Recent studies put the vast human and economic toll of global pollution into sharp relief. Will lawmakers respond?

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