This Air is Killing


It’s not just about breathing bad air. This pollution is a host of diseases like cardiovascular problem that lead to heart attacks and strokes, respiratory infections and lung cancer and finally to death of several. A World Bank report last year that surveyed 132 countries ranked India 126th for environmental performance and worst for air pollution.

pollutionAccording to World Health Organization, air pollution has become the world’s single biggest environmental health risk, linked to around 7 million – or nearly one in eight deaths in 2012.

As per the last analysis drawn from, “The Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study for 2010,” outdoor air pollution in the form of fine particles contributed to 3.2 million deaths globally in 2010, up from 800,000 just 10 years earlier. The sweeping worldwide study published in December involves 450 experts.

The new figures are more than double previous estimates and suggest that outdoor pollution from traffic fumes and coal-burning, and indoor pollution from wood and coal stoves, kills more people than smoking, road deaths and diabetes combined.

Around 80% of the 3.7 million deaths from outdoor pollution came as a result of stroke and heart disease, 11% from lung diseases and 6% from cancers. The vast majority was in Asia, with 180,000 in the Americas and Europe combined, said the WHO.

Indoor air pollution led to 4.3 million deaths, of which 34% were caused by strokes, 26% heart diseases and 12% respiratory disease in children. Only 19,000 of these deaths were in rich countries, with the vast majority being in low- and middle-income countries. Because many people are exposed to both indoor and outdoor air pollution, the WHO said deaths attributed to the two sources cannot be added together.

delhi-pollutionSouth-east Asia, said the WHO, is now the most polluted region in the world, with 3.3 million deaths linked to indoor air pollution and 2.6 million deaths related to outdoor air pollution. This reflects the explosive growth of cities and industrial development in China and India, as well as continuing deep poverty in rural areas.

Back home, India has seen this thick haze of air pollution emerge as the fifth-largest killer after high blood pressure, indoor air pollution, smoking and poor nutrition, according to study presented by the Boston-based Health Effect Institute. In 2010, outdoor air pollution contributed to over 620,000 premature deaths in the country, up from 100,000 in 2000.

Given the weight of the evidence, the question now is how to reform national policy, when enforcement is notoriously weak. India’s ministry of environment and forests has recommended upgrading vehicle fuel to low-sulfur diesel, retrofitting old vehicles, drafting guidelines on cleaner construction methods and other measures. But as is the case in everything else, best intentions and plans have stayed on papers.

Pollution and Pollutants

Pollutants are present everywhere in our environment and enter our body through the air we breathe (respiratory system), the food we eat and water we drink (gastrointestinal system), or through skin contact.

A simple definition of pollution could be the presence of high quantities of any entity in the wrong place. This indicates that a specific substance cannot in itself be labelled a pollutant. It becomes a pollutant when concentrations of the substance are too great to sustain health in any given place. For example, high concentrations of respirable particulate matter in lung tissue harm the respiratory system. Another example is inorganic arsenic. When concentrations of inorganic arsenic exceed 10 micrograms/L in the groundwater, significant adverse health effects occur in people who consume that water. High Arsenic content in ground water has resulted in a large number deaths in West Bengal in India and in Bangladesh.

Health Effects

Pollutants affect our health in several ways. These include direct irritation of target organs or metabolic changes within cells. For example, exposure to too much smoke, fumes or dust evokes a burning sensation in the airways, tightness in the chest and possible suffocation. Sometimes, the effects are subtler and may take years to develop. Asbestos fibres, for example, are small needle-shaped silicate crystals that penetrate deep into lung tissue and evoke reactions. It takes around 20 years for some illnesses to manifest.

Other health effects involve metabolic pathways in our bodies — pathways of chemical reactions in our cells — where they may interfere with energy production or cellular repair mechanisms. For example, exposure to inorganic arsenic is common among people who work in copper smelters or live around them. Exposure to inorganic arsenic also occurs among people who consume water from shallow tubewells in areas where the groundwater contains high levels of inorganic arsenic.

When it enters the body, inorganic arsenic is transformed through the same chemical reactions that are necessary to maintain the repair processes of DNA molecules within the cells. As a result of excess exposure to arsenic, and demands on these reactions, faulty repair of DNA molecules causes tumours to form.

Capital, The Dirtiest of 1600 Cities

Nevertheless, if we talk about the capital, World Health Organisation study finds that it has the dirtiest atmosphere of 1,600 cities around the world for PM 2.5 particles, i.e. particles of size of 2.5 microns which stay suspended in air for long time.

India’s state air monitoring center has admitted that pollution in Delhi is comparable to that of Beijing, but disputed a World Health Organisation (WHO) finding that the Indian capital had the dirtiest atmosphere in the world. Other Indian cities of Gwalior, Patna and Raipur reported 144, 149 and 134 respectively.

These extremely fine particles are linked with increased rates of chronic bronchitis, lung cancer and heart disease as they penetrate deep into the lungs and can pass into the bloodstream

The small particles blighting the air of Delhi and other leading developing cities around the world are often dust from construction sites, pollution from diesel engines or industrial emissions.

The Indian capital also suffers from atmospheric dust blown in from the deserts of the western state of Rajasthan, as well as pollution from open fires lit by the urban poor to keep warm in winter or to cook food.

Though, New Delhi defied all expectations when its buses and taxis and more than 50,000 autorickshaws began converting to cleaner-burning compressed natural gas in 2001 as a result of a Supreme Court mandate for commercial vehicles.

But the substantial reduction in air pollution after the switch to C.N.G. has since been canceled out by the sheer number of vehicles added to the city’s roads, including older, highly polluting vehicles like overloaded trucks that spew exhaust.

There are various studies that inform of the man years that are lost in developing countries such as India because of pollution. There is no effort to find out how much that means in terms of lost economic activity and money. Unless that is known and is factored in the economic decision making, perhaps all the growth would be only half truths. The fear is that by the time enlightened minds wakeup in corridors of power, it may be too late for countries such as ours.