Recent Articles

Air pollution is turning fatal

Air pollution is turning fatal

Toxic air is causing an alarming increase in incidence of lung cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases worldwide 

Air becomes more toxic particularly after Diwali because of cracker and stubble burning. Tribune Photo: Mukesh Aggarwal

Dr R Kumar

This may appear as a good time of the year, when the weather is pleasant and festivity is in the air because many major Indian festivals fall during this period. However, festivity is not the only thing in the air that becomes even more toxic than rest of the year, particularly in and around Delhi. Primarily, it becomes so polluted because of stubble burning in neighbouring states and post-Diwali. 

Rising pollution levels

India has surpassed China as among the most polluted countries, especially its air quality that has the potential to cause widespread physical sickness and mental depression. 

Besides polluted air; stubble burning, vehicular smoke and construction activity are other factors that add to this pollution. This region has the dubious distinction of having 10 most polluted cities in the world viz. Kanpur, Faridabad, Gaya, Varanasi, Patna, Delhi, Lucknow, Agra, Gurugram, Muzzafarpur. Chandigarh is fast catching up in the matter of deterioration of quality of air! 

Scary numbers

·        According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), at least 91 per cent people breathe in polluted air in the Asian subcontinent. This roughly translates into 4.2 billion people who are breathing air many times dirtier than the safe limit.

·        More people die from air pollution-related illnesses than road traffic injuries, malaria, malnutrition, alcohol, and physical inactivity. A study had indicated that at least 40 per cent of all deaths were caused by pollution.

·        As per the State of Global Air 2019, overall long-term exposure to outdoor and indoor air pollution contributed to nearly 5 million deaths from stroke, diabetes, heart attack, lung cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in 2017.

·        Two million children die every year globally from air pollution

Killer air

WHO says that air pollution causes 800,000 premature deaths from lung cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases worldwide, in addition to increased incidence of chronic bronchitis, acute respiratory infections, exacerbation of asthma and coronary disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.  

Air polluted with varied pollutants from indoor as well as outdoor sources eg dust, smoke, chemicals, plastics, bugs, allergens, animal and human waste, pesticides can result in long-term, often irreversible effects, such as infertility, miscarriage, and birth defects. Women’s exposure to solvents and organic pollutants may potentially affect the health of the foetus or lactating child. 

The elderly appear to be especially susceptible to PM2.5, which has been linked to dementia and cognitive decline. 

There are many air pollutants such as sulfates, nitrates, and black carbon and tiny particulates. The pollutants smaller than 2.5 microns in the air can penetrate deep into the body, damaging lungs, heart , brain, pancreas, kidney, endocrine glands and so on. Age-related macular degeneration; blinding disease of eyes occurs much more often in those who are constantly exposed to nitrogen and carbon mono-oxide emissions. 

Alarmed at the rising air pollution levels, WHO convened its first ‘Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health’ in Geneva this week.  It set an aspirational goal to reduce the number of deaths from air pollution by two-thirds by 2030. Air pollution – both ambient and household – is estimated to cause 7 million deaths per year, 5.6 million deaths are from noncommunicable diseases and 1.5 million from pneumonia.

Why lung diseases are rising

Not long ago smoking was considered to be the only cause of lung cancer, mostly in males. But in the last few years there has been a dramatic shift in the profiles of lung cancer patients: air fouled by dirty diesel exhaust fumes, house-hold smoke, construction dust, rising industrial emissions and crop burning, all have created heavy loads of harmful pollutants for all.  

A 28-year-old non-smoker woman has been diagnosed with stage-4 lung cancer in Delhi recently. According to doctors at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, it could be the toxic air and high-level of air pollutants in the city which caused the stage 4 cancer in the woman, who is a resident of Ghazipur town. The doctors also said that it was not the first such case which has been reported amongst people in their twenties.

The contribution of household smoke to the air is over 50 per cent in rural areas. Over 65 per cent of Indian households (76 per cent in rural areas) continue to use solid fuels like wood, dung, coal or charcoal for cooking and heating. Lack of oxygen and sunshine availability due to increasing indoor ‘screen time’ and decreasing outdoor life also contribute to polluted air. 

Toxic ozone layer

The ‘good’ ozone layer present high in the stratosphere, protects the earth from the heat and harmful rays of the sun, preserving life on the planet. But near the earth, bad ozone is produced in the troposphere due to chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC) produced due to human activity. This toxic ozone zone is a major factor in causing asthma and other respiratory ailments, along with nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide. Since it traps heat in the atmosphere, it is also called greenhouse gas and contributes to global warming. 

Chlorine, bromine and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), all produced due to human activity, are the primary ozone-depleting chemicals.  CFCs are used in refrigerators, air conditioners etc.  Cracking down on polluting industries & vehicles is necessary to protect ozone layer.  

Many argue that these steps may lead to economic recession. But pollution has high economic costs too. It can bring down productivity and enhance health costs, reduce crop yields and impact biodiversity and ecosystems. India lost more than 8.5 per cent of its GDP in 2013 due to air pollution. Air pollution costs in Mumbai and Delhi alone were over Rs 70,000 crores in 2015. Premature deaths and the costs of the quality of life loss accounted for approximately 90 per cent of the total cost. “The health burden of dirty air and polluting energy sources is so high, that moving to cleaner and more sustainable choices for energy supply, transport and food systems effectively pays for itself,” says Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director of Environmental Health. 

Citizen activism

The Government of India has been spearheading a nationwide campaigns to achieve a healthy India through various environmental improvement programs viz. Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, open defecation free villages, Ujjawala and Clean Ganga schemes, Jal Shakti , ban on single-use plastics, Fit India and other schemes. The government is promoting solar power, accelerated Bharat VI clean vehicle standards, shift towards electrical vehicles, waste to wealth plan, banning old diesel vehicles  and stubble burning, reducing dependence on thermal power plants  and promulgation of ‘National Clean Air Programme’.  However, for India to succeed in moving towards a clean environment, all citizens must work towards this goal to reduce air pollution.

— The writer is president, Society for Promotion of Ethical and Affordable Health Care

The Tribune 2nd November 2019

Enquiry Feedback Top