What does pollution cost the environment? Some visible damages — the smog hanging over our cities — and some invisible damages like a warming planet.
Now, what is pollution costing you?
More deaths, more breathing disorders, heart attacks, stroke and increasing hospital visits. Treating them costs a family of four in Mumbai around Rs1.68 lakh — or Rs42,000 per person — every year, according to one study. Another study said more deaths were being caused by breathing in the most dangerous pollutant particles floating around in our air. Data collected by the World Health Organization for its Global Burden of Disease project showed premature deaths related to air pollution in India has caught up, and is now surpassing China.
Air pollution is destroying lives, as much as it is destroying our environment. There are several studies to prove it. It is time to sit up and take note.
The India story
In India, it is perhaps the worst time to be a child today. Their young, undeveloped lungs are left gasping for air as pollution levels rise dangerously across the country. A recent study across eight Indian cities found air pollution has become the primary trigger for asthma in children.
“Some 93% had to leave school or work because of asthma, which also caused a 50% loss of productivity. Nearly 75% of asthmatics have never had a lung function test,” said researcher Dr Sundeep S Salvi, director of the Chest Research Foundation, Pune. The common triggers were dust (49%) and air pollution (49%). Only 5% reported of pollen as triggers, he said.
The study, by Asia–Pacific Asthma Insight and Management (AP-AIM), looked at the impact of asthma on the quality of life across Australia, China, Hong Kong, India, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand. In India, the researchers spoke to 400 adult asthmatics and parents of asthmatic children between 12 and 17 years in Mumbai, Ajmer, Delhi, Kolkata, Rourkela, Chennai, Mangalore and Rajkot, and based on their testimonies, found chemicals, tobacco smoke and perfumes were triggering asthma symptoms.
A dangerous, silent killer
Experts have repeatedly highlighted how many dismiss the issue of polluted air as someone else’s problem. That it degrades human health as much as it does the environment should be reason enough to change the way we think about, they say.
“The risks from air pollution are now far greater than previously thought or understood, particularly for heart disease and strokes,” said Dr Maria Neira, the director of WHO’s Department for Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health. “Few risks have greater impact on global health today than air pollution; the evidence signals the need for concerted action to clean up the air we all breathe.”
Over the past year alone, doctors reported an increasing number of air pollution-related illnesses in Mumbai. Doctors point to several studies that shown that air pollutants are major triggering factors for asthma.
“The amount of pollution, it just does not feel healthy to breath anymore,” said Andheri resident Shahnawaz Khan. When Khan took his family for routine check-up, he said the doctor showed them their lung capacities had decreased. “We keep the windows closed and handkerchiefs around our mouths when we go out.”
It’s clean-up time
You may be able to buffer the pollution, use air-purifiers or wear masks. But polluted air is pervasive. A government official from the health ministry said the study has showed how vulnerable the people are. “As mentioned in the paper, it is true asthma management in Mumbai and other cities of the country is extremely poor. There needs to be a solution to curb the problem of air pollution in a systematic manner which can improve the quality of life.”
Dr Salvi agreed that creating awareness about what triggers pollution-related diseases such as asthma through public education strategies is crucial. “Government intervention is of paramount importance. There needs to be strict screening and government litigation to minimise outdoor air pollution. That is imperative to improve controlling asthma,” said Dr Salvi.
It is also time for greener, healthier policies, doctors said.
“Excessive air pollution is often a byproduct of unsustainable policies in sectors such as transport, energy, waste management and industry,” said Dr Carlos Dora, WHO Coordinator for Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health. “In most cases, healthier strategies will be economical in the longterm as it will help not only bring down healthcare costs, but also save the environment.”