India Choking: Air pollution is a problem that not only needs acknowledgement, but action too

Air pollution is a public health crisis. A new report released by the US-based Health Effect Institute (HEI) attributes 1.1 million deaths per year to toxic air in India. While this is still a slightly lower number than China’s, the rate of increase of such deaths in India far out paces its northern neighbour.


By Pallavi Aiyar

In the global imagination China is the poster boy for air pollution. I lived in Beijing for seven years between 2002 and 2009. During that time, visits to India invariably included conversations with aunties who while not usually environmental in their outlook, delightedly commiserated about China’s toxic air. “Oh ho! Such terrible pollution. Tch! Tch!” Having spent years being dumbfounded by our northern neighbour’s miraculous economic growth it was a comfort to think that the Chinese had some real problems too.

“Is it really that bad, beta?” the aunties would ask egging me on to confirm their best fears. The fact was, and is, that it is bad, but not as bad as India. According to Nasa satellite data, the levels of fine particulate matter got worse across India by 13 percent between 2010 and 2015, while China’s fell by 17 per cent. There is finally one race in which India seems to be beating China. Unfortunately, this one is a race to the bottom.

Air pollution is a public health crisis. A new report released by the US-based Health Effect Institute (HEI) attributes 1.1 million deaths per year to toxic air in India. While this is still a slightly lower number than China’s, the rate of increase of such deaths in India far out paces its northern neighbour.

 India Choking: Air pollution is a problem that not only needs acknowledgement, but action too

Image: Reuters

While premature deaths related to PM2.5 in China spiked by 17.22 per cent since 1990, in India these have increased by 48 per cent. An earlier 2013 report by the same organisation put ambient air pollution ahead of other factors like alcohol use, high cholesterol and high blood sugar as a risk factor contributing to the national burden of disease in India.

And yet most Indians react to polluted air with a compound of ignorance, fatalism and complacency. It’s sometimes dismissed as benign bad weather; fog. Others believe it to be a seasonal problem confined to the winter. Some blame firecrackers for the toxic air. Many single out an increase in vehicles as the cause. Almost everyone thinks dirty air to be an unmodifiable fact of life for an Indian. Something one must put up with and shut up about. Most bewilderingly there are those who believe breathing in toxic air provides them with immunity to the health effects of pollution.

In response, here are the facts. First off: air pollution is not a weather phenomenon, it is a killer. All of us, regardless of caste, class or community breathe it and we are all susceptible to it, although the young and the elderly are disproportionately vulnerable. Children, because their respiratory defences have not reached their full capability. They also breathe in more air per kilo of body weight than adults; so they take in more toxins per kilo of body weight as well. Seniors are often frail and with failing immunity. They are also likely to have pre-existing medical conditions that can exacerbate the effects of air pollution.

Air pollution is not a simple “thing.” It’s a confounding complex of particulates and gases. The abbreviation PM refers to particulate matter, which is designated as either 10 or 2.5. These numbers refer to the size of the particles. Dust particles from windblown soil and construction activity tend to be between 2.5 and 10 micrometers in diameter and are categorised as PM 10. To put this in context, a single strand of human hair is usually between 50 and 70 micrometers in diameter. Fine particulate matter that is less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter has been linked to up to 16,200 premature deaths (and a staggering six million asthma attacks) per year in Delhi alone. There are reports that one of every four children in the Indian capital suffers from a serious lung disorder.

Image: Reuters

Image: Reuters

Other constituents of air pollution such as Sulfur Dioxide, Ozone and Nitrogen Oxides are associated with a range of health effects from reduced lung capacity, to heart disease and even cancer.

Air pollution results from a combination of vehicular, industrial and household sources. The burning of fuels like coal emits noxious gases like Sulfur Dioxide. Diesel engines spout huge amounts of Nitrogen Oxides. Construction dust contributes to coarse particulate matter. And all of these sources are responsible for PM 2.5. The burning of trash and leaves adds to the toxicity as does agricultural burning across the northern plains.

An air shed is a region within which air circulates. The wind does not obey city boundaries, a fact that necessitates joint action across entire regions. Unless the north Indian states of Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan work in tandem to address all major sources of pollution - industrial, vehicular, agricultural and domestic - even herculean efforts by a single state or city will not prevent the entire north Indian airshed from choking.

An especially important myth to bust is that pollution is only a winter phenomenon. Undoubtedly, dirty skies are more visible in the colder months. However, Delhi’s skies remain hazardously polluted all year. PM2.5 levels decrease in the hot months, but ozone levels, which are invisible, peak in the summer. Ground-level ozone is formed when Nitrogen Oxides and other volatile gases (VOCs or volatile organic compounds) are exposed to each other in sunlight. Warm temperatures are a catalyst for higher levels of ozone.

Shortness of breath, tightness of the chest, wheezing, and nausea are common responses to ozone. It also triggers asthma and can aggravate other respiratory illnesses such as pneumonia and bronchitis. India records the highest number of ozone-related deaths in the world. According to the latest HEI report, ozone-deaths in India have vaulted by 148 per cent since 1990 (compared to 48 percent for particulate matter). Ozone-related premature deaths in India are 33 per cent higher than those in China.

Finally, it’s worth spelling out that you do not become immune to air pollution by breathing polluted air. You develop respiratory disorders. Just as you do not become immune to malaria by getting bitten by infected female Anopheles mosquitoes. You get malaria.

There is no need to be fatalistic about toxic air. India is a large, industrialising, populous, developing country and all countries in similar circumstances have undergone extensive episodes of polluted air. Air pollution is a man-made problem with practical solutions at both the policy and individual level available. It is these that will be the focus of subsequent articles in this series.

The authour recently wrote the book 'Choked: Everything You Were Afraid to Know About Pollution'

This is part one of a three-part series on the rise of Air Pollution in India. The series hopes to address the severity of the air pollution problem and what are the measures that can be used to mitigate the same. 


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