The link between crop burning and respiratory illness is a health and economic timebomb

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The link between crop burning and respiratory illness is a health and economic timebomb

MARCH 11, 2019


The struggle faced by Rosamund Kissi-Debrah to get London’s severe air pollution listed on her nine-year-old daughter’s death certificate—a world-first if it goes through—is a grim reminder of the tragic consequences of worsening air quality in cities across the globe, and the threat it poses to the most vulnerable: Children.

Respiratory infections are the most common chronic disease of children globally, and a leading cause of death in developing countries. The situation is exacerbated by air pollution in developing countries, home to many of the world’s most polluted cities.

Air pollution in northern India, mainly New Delhi and the neighboring states, is exacting a toll on the health of the residents, making global headlines, highlighting the severity and extent of the public health disaster in one of the world’s fastest growing economies.

A contributing factor to air pollution in northern India is the harmful practice of crop residue burning—banned by the Indian government in 2015 yet prevalent in many parts of the states of Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh. Farmers burn residue to clear fields before sowing a new crop.

In our study we found, for the first time, a link between crop residue burning and acute respiratory infection, and have estimated its economic and health costs.

Crop residue burning is the leading risk factor of acute respiratory infection in India, and economic losses associated with its health effects are estimated at $35 billion per year. When combined with firecracker burning, the economic losses are nearly $152 billion over five years or 1.7 per cent of India’s GDP.

      Crop residue fires generate a wide swath of dangerous air pollution

We analyzed health data from more than 250,000 people of all ages residing in villages and cities in India. Using NASA satellite data on fire activity to estimate the health impact of living in areas with intense crop burning, we found that the frequency of reported hospital visits for ARI symptoms paralleled the number of fires observed by satellite (see image, left): as crop burning increased, respiratory health worsened.

In districts where crop residue burning is intense, residents, especially children under 5, are three times more likely to visit the hospital for symptoms of acute respiratory infection. We found it wasn’t only the residents of Delhi, but also the women, children, and men living in the rural areas of Delhi’s neighboring state, Haryana, who are the first victims of crop residue burning. Much of the public discussion on ill effects of crop residue burning ignores this immediately-affected vulnerable population and instead focuses on residents of Delhi.

During certain times of the year, coinciding with the onset of winter in northern India, levels of airborne particulate matter in Delhi spike to 20 times the safe threshold proposed by the World Health Organization. Smoke from burning of crop residue in northwest India has been estimated to contribute up to 78 per cent of the enhancement in small particulate matter in Delhi on certain days.

Our study found that exposure to vehicular pollution, open drains, cooking with biomass, and urban living are some of the other leading risk factors of acute respiratory infection.

Biomass burning is practiced in both developing and developed countries including the United States and in Europe. It has gained attention in India in particular due to the pre-existing poor air quality, which is worsened when farmers burn crops. The Indian government has demonstrated an interest in combating air pollution and respiratory illness but so far has fallen short in addressing the air quality crisis.

As Indian farmers face tough times, convincing them to change their practices will require full cooperation from the highest levels of government. This study suggests that targeted government initiatives to improve crop disposal practices are worthy investments. Programs and policies must simultaneously address indoor and outdoor pollution through a combination of bans and agricultural subsidies. Other important interventions for improving respiratory health are increasing household access to clean cooking fuels, electricity, and improved drainage systems.

Despite efforts from the Indian government, farmers continue to burn crop residue due to lack of convenient and affordable alternatives. Eliminating crop burning will not only improve human health but will also contribute to soil and plant biodiversity and will reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Samuel Scott is a Research Fellow with IFPRI’s Poverty, Health, and Nutrition Division (PHND), based in New Delhi. IFPRI researchers Avinash Kishore, Devesh Roy, Suman Chakrabarti and Md Tajuddin Khan also contributed. This post first appeared in The Telegraph.

This work was supported by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR).

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