Is South Asia’s PM2.5 Solvable? Exploring Sources, Solutions, and Urgent Actions

Yes, South Asia’s PM2.5 crisis is solvable but it requires a comprehensive approach. Recent groundbreaking research has identified the region’s primary sources of PM2.5 pollution, including residential combustion, industry, power generation, biofuel use, and open fires. To address this crisis effectively, policies must extend beyond urban areas and encompass entire nations, promoting a shift from traditional fuel sources to sustainable energy alternatives.
Join us to delve deeper into the research findings and innovative strategies addressing South Asia’s PM2.5 crisis—discover how we can combat air pollution and improve public health in the region.

Air pollution in Southeast Asia - Strategies and solutions for combating PM2.5 and improving public health.

Understanding PM2.5: A Silent Threat

Air pollution is a significant problem in South Asia, with fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, being a major concern. These tiny particles, measuring 2.5 micrometers or smaller, are released into the atmosphere by various sources like wood burning, power generation, and motor vehicles. What’s alarming is that they are small enough to be inhaled and can lead to long-term damage to the heart and lungs.

Pioneering Research Reveals PM2.5 Culprits and Solutions

In a groundbreaking study conducted by researchers from Randall Martin’s lab at Washington University in St. Louis, the impact of different emission sectors and fuels on PM2.5 mass was assessed for 29 Indian states and six neighboring countries, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar. Their findings, recently published in Environmental Science & Technology, shed light on the primary culprits behind high PM2.5 concentrations in South Asia and offer potential solutions to improve public health in the region.

The study’s lead author, Deepangsu Chatterjee, a doctoral student in energy, environmental & chemical engineering, emphasized the gravity of the situation in South Asia. He pointed out that more than one million deaths in the region in 2019 were attributed to ambient PM2.5, primarily originating from residential combustion, industry, and power generation. Solid biofuel was identified as the leading contributor to PM2.5-related mortality, followed by coal and oil and gas.

Co-author Michael Brauer, a professor at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, underlined the severity of the air pollution problem in South Asia. He stated that air pollution, both indoors and outdoors, is the leading risk factor for death in the region. Identifying the major sources of pollution is the crucial first step in managing this pressing issue.

Crucial Insights into PM2.5 Sources and Strategies

Evaluating the impacts of PM2.5 is a complex task, as understanding its production and distribution over time is challenging. To overcome this, Chatterjee and Raymond R. Tucker Distinguished Professor Randall Martin combined global emission data, satellite-derived estimates of fine surface particulate matter, and advanced global-scale modeling techniques to create regional simulations. Their research also considered long-range transport to determine how different emission sectors and fuels contributed to PM2.5 levels and associated mortality rates.


Martin highlighted how advancements in atmospheric modeling, aided by satellite remote sensing data, played a vital role in their assessment of PM2.5 sources across South Asia. Their research pinpointed significant contributions from burning biofuel and coal.

Chatterjee emphasized that primary organics are the dominant contributors to PM2.5 mass composition in South Asia, spanning various major sectors. The team’s analysis of PM2.5 composition offers valuable insights for devising effective strategies to mitigate pollution associated with specific particle types.

A Holistic Approach to South Asia’s Air Pollution Challenge

In South Asia, air pollution exhibits several notable characteristics. High contributions from coal are particularly prevalent in central and eastern India. Meanwhile, regions in northeast and central India grapple with elevated levels of household air pollution. In Bangladesh, the use of biofuels plays a significant role in contributing to air pollution, while Myanmar faces challenges posed by open fires.


However, this study underscores a crucial point: the air pollution problem in South Asia transcends urban boundaries. Thus, policies solely targeting urban development will prove insufficient in mitigating the national-level exposure to PM2.5, as emphasized by Chatterjee.


Chatterjee, Martin, and their co-authors propose a range of strategies for future interventions across South Asia. Among these, they advocate for policies that promote the transition from traditional fuel sources to sustainable energy alternatives.

Reflecting on recent developments, Chatterjee commends India’s efforts over the past five to ten years to identify and address air pollution concerns and their associated health risks. 


The effectiveness of these policies serves as a motivating example for the entire South Asian population, inspiring them to push for more comprehensive strategies aimed at curbing the growth of air pollution.


Furthermore, the research paper provides detailed insights, breaking down information by sectors, fuels, and compositions for various states in India and neighboring countries. This valuable data can assist local policymakers in pinpointing and eliminating PM2.5 sources specific to their respective regions.