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As pollution skyrockets in India, health care costs poised to mount

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Jeff Tyson

Levels of pollution in India’s capital New Delhi soared on Tuesday, leading the Indian Medical Association to declare a public health emergency and prompting officials to close schools. The smog descending over the city can cause sickness and pre-mature death, and can lead to billions of dollars of additional health care costs according to a Cornell University environmental economist.

Shanjun Li is associate professor of environmental and energy economics and a fellow at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. Li recently studied the effect of pollution on China, a country also plagued by record-levels of smog. He found that elevated levels of air pollutants in the country from 2011 to 2013 lead to an additional spending of $44 billion annually in related health care costs.

Li says:

"Many fast-growing economies in East and South Asia such as Bangladesh, China and India are experiencing the worst air pollution in the world due to the dramatic increase in fossil fuel usage such as coal and oil and the lax environmental regulations.

"Fine particulate matter (PM2.5), a key air pollutant, is particularly detrimental to health as the fine particles can penetrate deep into lungs and irritate respiratory and cardiovascular systems, leading to aggravated asthma, lung disease, heart attacks and stroke. Studies show that ambient PM2.5 pollution is the leading environmental factor for premature deaths in the world, responsible for 4.2 million premature deaths in 2015. Premature deaths due to PM2.5 in China and India account for 50 percent of the world total.

"A recent study by Cornell researchers using comprehensive health spending data in China from 2011 to 2013 estimates that the elevated level of PM2.5 (relative to the level recommended by the World Health Organization) leads to additional spending of $44 billion annually in hospitals, pharmacies and other healthcare facilities. This increased health cost is about 7 percent of the total health spending, or 0.4 percent of national GDP in China.

"India’s air pollution is becoming worse than China in recent years. Policy makers in China are increasingly aware of the economic and social consequences of air pollution and have set explicit targets of PM2.5 reduction in national plans. Policy makers in developing countries – including India – need to pay attention to not only GDP growth but also the health consequences of environmental degradation off the books."

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