New Delhi: Outdoor air pollution has emerged as a major health risk in developing countries, contributing to some 3.2 million premature deaths worldwide and 74 million years of healthy life lost in 2010, medical journal Lancet said in a study published on Friday. India and its neighbours in South Asia are particularly at risk.

It’s the first time that a global study has placed air pollution among the top 10 global health risks, ranking it alongside high blood pressure, tobacco consumption and alcoholism.

Deaths attributable to air pollution increased substantially in South Asian nations—where air pollution levels are highest in the world, according to Lancet’s 2010 Global Burden of Disease (GBD 2010) study. There has been an unprecedented increase of 300% in diseases attributed to air pollution. Among risk factors studied, outdoor air pollution ranked fourth in the mortality and health burden in East Asia (China and North Korea) where it contributed to 1.2 million deaths in 2010, and sixth in South Asia (including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka), where it contributed to 712,000 deaths in 2010.

Anumita Roychowdhury, head of the air pollution unit at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a New Delhi-based environmental activist group, said the report must trigger urgent and aggressive action in India to curb air pollution to protect public health.

Roychowdhury said action is required to reverse the trend of short-term respiratory and cardiac effects as well as diseases like cancer and metabolic effects.

“Toxic effects like cancer surface after a long latency period. Therefore, exposure to air pollution will have to be reduced today to reduce the burden of disease," she said.

Fine particle air pollution in India—measured by particulate matter in ambient air—in many Indian cities is far above the permissible limit specified by the government at 100 microgramme per cubic metre.

“There is growing evidence that environmental pollution, especially in cities like Delhi, has a direct impact on disease burden," said N.P. Singh, director of medicine at Pushpanjali Crosslay Hospital. “We have seen several cases of renal failure where toxins in the environment could be a contributory factor. These aspects need to be studied urgently."

On 13 November, the day Diwali was celebrated, the particulate matter level in Delhi shot up to as high as 951 microgrammes per cubic metre. Mumbai recorded the second highest at 280 microgrammes per cubic metre. The lowest level was recorded in Bangalore at 103 microgrammes per cubic metre.

A Central Pollution Control Board official said that one of the reasons behind the high levels of particulate matter in the Delhi air was its proximity to the desert areas of Rajasthan. “The number of vehicles in Delhi is much more as compared to the rest. Also there are heavy vehicles passing through the city every day and the population of Delhi is also very high," said the official, who requested anonymity.

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