U.S. President Barack Obama could lose roughly 6 hours from his expected lifespan after spending three days in India’s capital inhaling the world’s most toxic air.
Air Force One descended through an acrid smog when it landed in New Delhi on Sunday. A day later, haze obscured the visibility of fighter jets flying over Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi as they watched the Republic Day parade, the ceremonial centerpiece of his visit.
Delhi has the world’s highest levels of PM2.5 -- tiny, toxic particles that lead to respiratory diseases, lung cancer and heart attacks. The Indian capital averaged 153 micrograms per cubic meter in 2013, the World Health Organization said in May, citing government data. That’s 15 times more than the average annual exposure recommended by the WHO.
India as a whole is home to 11 of the top 20 cities on the planet with the worst air quality, according to data from the WHO, which collected pollution levels from 1,600 metropolitan areas between 2008 to 2013. The worst U.S. city was Fresno, California, which came 162nd on the list.
During Obama’s three-day visit, PM2.5 levels in Delhi have averaged between 76 to 84 micrograms per cubic meter, according to data collected by India’s Ministry of Earth Sciences. The U.S. leader departed on Tuesday for Saudi Arabia.
Those levels translate roughly into an estimated loss of 2 hours a day in life expectancy, said David Spiegelhalter, a statistician at the University of Cambridge, who specializes in quantifying risk in a way that is understandable to the public.
“That’s roughly 8 cigarettes a day,” Spiegelhalter said in an e-mailed response to questions. “I think Delhi is a wonderful city, but this pollution is harming its residents.”
India says this week’s levels aren’t that bad. The government classifies any reading from 60 to 90 micrograms over a 24-year period as “satisfactory,” which means they “may cause minor breathing discomfort to sensitive people.”
“We weren’t concerned about bringing the president here for these meetings,” John Podesta, Obama’s climate counselor, told reporters Monday at a briefing in New Delhi. “The president has traveled to many places where the air is bad for one reason or other,” including Beijing, he said.
The U.S. Embassy in New Delhi recently purchased more than 1,800 Swedish air purifiers ahead of Obama’s visit, according to Stockholm-based Blueair AB, which makes them.
In recent years, India has seen readings exceed 500 micrograms, a level that doesn’t even make it on U.S. charts, according to data from India’s Central Pollution Control Board.
Back in Washington, the 24-hour average was 15 micrograms, classified as “moderate” by the U.S. government’s AirNow system. Beijing, by comparison, has had a good week. The latest 24-hour average in China’s capital was 13 micrograms, according to the Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center.
Obama, who said he stopped smoking about eight years ago, said Sunday that India and the U.S. will start “new joint projects to improve air quality in Indian cities.” In a briefing with Modi, both leaders pledged to cooperate more closely on clean energy and climate change. The U.S. is the world’s second-biggest carbon dioxide emitter, while India is third.
“America wants to be your partner as you protect the health of your people and the beauty of this land,” Obama said in a speech to about 1,500 people at a Delhi auditorium earlier Tuesday, calling for cleaner energy, vehicles and water. “Because every child should be able to drink clean water; every child should be able to breathe clean air.”
Podesta said that the clean-energy agreements reached between Obama and Modi will have the added benefit of helping public health by improving air quality.
Despite the talk, there’s little Washington or even Delhi officials can do until India’s oil refiners are able to start producing cleaner fuels in 2020.
Vehicles with diesel engines, which proliferated as successive governments subsidized the cost of the fuel, aren’t able to install filters to scrub exhaust gases because local fuels carry too much sulfur. As a result, those cars can pump out exhaust gases with 10 times the carcinogenic particles found in gasoline exhaust.
While Modi ended state control on diesel pricing in October, the ratio of diesel to gasoline vehicles running on Indian roads is far greater than in China or the U.S. India expects its refiners to be able to supply high-quality Euro-VI fuels nationwide by 2020, according to Saurabh Chandra, the oil ministry’s top bureaucrat.
PM2.5 refers to tiny airborne particles and liquid droplets measuring less than 2.5 micrometers or one-thirtieth the width of a strand of hair. Because they’re so small, they penetrate deep into the lungs and pass into the blood stream, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The World Health Organization classifies PM2.5 as a Group 1 carcinogen, similar to asbestos and tobacco. Short-term spikes can kill, triggering strokes, heart failure and asthma attacks, according to the American Lung Association.
Shortened life spans of the urban population because of air pollution cost India $18 billion annually, according to a World Bank report in June.
Whether that spurs Modi to take more action remains to be seen. The Indian leader was asked Jan. 25 if his country felt pressure to act more aggressively on environmental issues.
“When we think about the future generations and what kind of a world we are going to give them, then there is pressure,” he replied. “India is an independent country and there is no pressure on us from any country or any person.”