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Air you breathe may cause cancer

The air that Mumbaiites are breathing may make them more susceptible to cancer. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s (BMC) latest Environment Status Report (ESR) for 2009-2010, released on September 3, shows that the amount of cancer-causing particulate matter in the air has increased alarmingly compared to last year.

mumbai Updated: Sep 08, 2010 02:39 IST
Bhavika Jain

The air that Mumbaiites are breathing may make them more susceptible to cancer. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s (BMC) latest Environment Status Report (ESR) for 2009-2010, released on September 3, shows that the amount of cancer-causing particulate matter in the air has increased alarmingly compared to last year.

The report shows that the presence of benzo(a)pyrene, a highly carcinogenic chemical released in the air, in the city has risen eight times from its minimum level of 0.13 µg/1000m3 in 2008-2009 to 1.09.

The maximum level has increased five times, from 0.54 µg/1000m3 in 2008-2009 to 2.56. µg/1000m3 is a unit that measures the concentration of particulate matter in a defined quantity of air.

“The annual average of B(a)P levels has exceeded the Central Pollution Control board standards of 1 µg/1000m3,” the report pointed out.

“These carcinogens can cause cancer of the breathing tract and the voice box as they are absorbed by the body while breathing,” said Dr Pankaj Chaturvedi, professor and head and neck cancer surgeon with the Tata Memorial Centre in Parel.

Benzo(a)pyrene is part of a class of chemicals called polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and is emitted from tar, automobile exhaust fumes and smoke from combustion of organic materials such as tobacco, wood, plants and coal, among other materials.

“A large number of studies have documented links between benzo(a)pyrene and cancers,” the BMC report said.

The report also shows that the annual range of other PAHs — phenanthrene, fluoranthene, pyrene, chrysene and benz(a)anthracene — have also seen a significant jump compared to last year.

PAHs, produced as byproducts of fuel burning, are potent atmospheric pollutants and identified as both carcinogenic and mutagenic. “Long-term human exposure to these PAHs might lead to genetic damage,” said Dr Chaturvedi.

The BMC report attributes the rise in these carcinogenic chemicals to increased construction activity and rapid industrialisation, among other factors.

The report is based on data of ambient air quality recorded at six air-monitoring stations at Worli, Andheri, Khar, Bhandup, Borivli and Maravli (Chembur).

The report also highlights the rise in suspended particulate matter (SPM) levels in the city, stating that the SPM levels have exceeded permissible limits at all sites except Borivli. SPM is high in areas that have high construction activities and emissions from bakeries, factories, hotels and stone-cutting units.

“The air in Mumbai also has higher values of particulate matter exceeding current standards all through the year, except during the monsoon. This is a worrying trend,” said an official from the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board, requesting anonymity.