As crop stubble burns in Punjab and Haryana, the northwest winds are bringing its smoke to Delhi. That this particulate air pollution, now a seasonal phenomenon in the national capital, is a leading risk factor for premature deaths is well-established. But a new study authored by Hemant K Pullabhotla of the University of Illinois suggests that the effects on child mortality may have been underestimated.

Drawing on satellite-based data of the location and timing of agricultural fires and combining this with data on air quality and childbirth across India over the last 10 years, Pullabhotla estimates that a 10% increase in particulate pollution results in more than 90,000 additional infant deaths per year. This is a much larger mortality effect compared to existing estimates. He finds that these effects are concentrated in rural households, while the effect is relatively muted in urban areas. He attributes to these differences to varying health care access and household wealth.

He also finds that the location of fires and the direction of wind matters. Upwind fires, which refer to fires that lie in the direction of the way the wind is blowing from at each household, increase both particulate pollution and infant mortality while downwind fires have no impact. The study shows that up-wind fire activity has a significant effect on PM10 levels (which refers to particulate matter up to 10 micrometres in size) in the sample of 250 Indian cities used in the analysis. He estimates that in months with 5 or more fires, the average increase in PM10 levels is more than 3.3 µg per cubic meter – nearly 20% of the safe limit of prescribed by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Also Read: Air Pollution and Infant Mortality: Evidence from Agricultural Fires in India

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