How foul air makes our life miserable
Air pollution has hit Delhi like no other health or environmental crises ever before. City doctors say it is suppressing our immunity, making us vulnerable to respiratory disorders, heart attacks and cancer, and is reducing the overall life expectancy.Updated: Jan 28, 2019 12:24 IST
“It must be good to get away from Delhi’s pollution.”
That was the first reaction of almost everyone I met on a vacation in the southern hill town of Madikeri, Karnataka. It is almost as if the national capital conjures up just this one vision: of people in masks walking under a smog-laden sky, quite like the spectacle of Beijing’s ‘airpocalypse’.
This, most Delhi residents would agree, is hardly an exaggeration. Air pollution has hit the national capital like no other health or environmental crises ever before. City doctors say it is suppressing our immunity, making us vulnerable to respiratory disorders, heart attacks and cancer, and is reducing the overall life expectancy.
While past studies have indicated that long-term exposure to toxic air could impede overall cognitive performance among the elderly (Peking and Yale Universities) and school going children (Erasmus University), a new study from China now shows that acute pollution is also associated with a drop in people’s happiness levels.
Researchers from USA’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and its China Future City Lab analysed 210 million geotagged tweets from China’s largest microblogging platform, Sina Weibo, to track how daily pollution levels impacted people’s happiness in 144 Chinese cities. They published the results in Nature Human Behaviour last week.
Applying a machine-learning algorithm and merging this index with the daily PM2.5 concentration and weather data, the study found a significantly negative correlation between pollution and happiness levels. Women were more sensitive to higher pollution levels than men, as were those on higher incomes.
Weather is known to affect moods. The Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), marked by a persistent low mood, irritability, despair and lack of energy, is common among people living in extremely cold climates. The impact can get grimmer with pollution. The Great London Smog of 1952 probably explains how the generational memory deepened the British obsession with weather.
“Environment does play a role in the human mind. In the same context, noise and air pollution does disturb the mood and affects cognition,” says Dr Rajesh Sagar, a professor of psychiatry at All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). While no study has measured the impact of Delhi’s foul air on its residents’ moods yet, there are enough anecdotes to suggest that pollution is affecting our daily routine and behaviour.
Last November, even a Supreme Court judge remarked how he could not go for his morning walk due to pollution. He is not the only one watching the air quality levels. Smartphone applications offering live feeds on air quality are among popular downloads, with many using one to decide their exercise regimen and outdoor activities.
Schools shut down when air quality deteriorates to emergency levels. On days when pollution enters the severe zone, principals are advised to restrict or reschedule outdoor activities. Many parents I know avoid sending their children to the park when the air is very bad. We all know that playing is essential to the cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being of children. But with research showing how air pollution has compromised lung function of so many children in Delhi, can we blame the parents and teachers for keeping their young ones indoors?
Not till long ago, October used to be the beginning of the tourist season in Delhi. Now, many residents, especially those suffering from bronchial diseases, leave Delhi to escape the weeks that witness farm stubble burning and the Diwali cracker blitzkrieg. Likewise, many non-resident Indians reschedule their annual homecoming and even tourists tend to avoid the city when air pollution peaks.
Many have installed air purifiers in their homes, offices and even cars. However, being confined indoors is an unrealistic compromise to avoid pollution and no private measure can help when one steps out in a city where the air quality vacillates between poor and severe for more than 200 days in a year.
In any case, private solutions to air pollution are never democratic. A vast majority of the citizenry cannot afford any air-purifying contraption. Their work demands that they spend long hours outdoors. Pollution is probably the least of their concerns. But that does not mean that they have given up their right to clean air.It is time the authorities stopped quibbling, went beyond whataboutery and honoured that right.
First Published: Jan 28, 2019 12:24 IST