Breathless in Delhi: Why we must clean up the air for our kids
The Supreme Court on Friday recognised childrens’ right to clean air and banned the sale of crackers in the national capital region. Here’s taking a look at how air pollution is a health hazard for children we should wake up to sooner than later.health and fitness Updated: Nov 27, 2016 10:36 IST
Three toddlers moved the Supreme Court in September last year asking for a ban on firecrackers that made Delhi’s air after Diwali the most toxic in close to two decades. On Friday, the Court recognised their right to clean air and banned the sale of crackers in the national capital region.
While banning sale of firecrackers is not enough to stop people from using them, it’s a start. In 2012, air pollution killed 7 million people globally -- one in every 8 deaths. Of these, 600,000 of those who died were children under 5.
Polluted air starts hurting, sometimes killing, babies before they are born. It causes miscarriages, premature delivery and low birth weight. These raise the child’s chances of dying prematurely from airway and lung infections, such as pneumonia. Half of all pneumonia deaths in children under five are attributed to air pollution.
‘Air Pollution’ is listed as a carcinogen that’s as hazardous as tobacco, alcohol, ultraviolet radiation, arsenic and radioactive substances, says the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). It causes premature deaths, lowering life expectancy by 23 months in India. And with pollution levels shooting through the roof, children born today will have their lives cut short by many more years.
Each component of polluted air -- particulate matter, diesel engine exhaust, solvents, metals and soot – is individually on the IARC’s hazardous list, which make falling air quality a public health emergency that needs immediate action.
Air pollution hurts the unborn baby as much as the mother’s smoking or breathing secondhand smoke. Chronic exposure to tiny particulate matter (PM1 and PM2.5, or particles with a diameter less than 1 and 2.5 microns, far smaller than the 70 micron-diameter of a human hair) from smoke, fumes and construction dust raises rates of early foetal loss, pre-term delivery and lower birthweight.
The children who survive, bear the scars for life. The lung capacity of children living in polluted environments can be reduced by 20%, which is similar to the effect of growing up exposed to secondhand smoke at home. Children breathe twice as quickly as adults, and inhale more air relative to their weight than adults, which exposes them to a higher concentration of pollutants. Tiny toxic particles can easily cross the blood-brain barrier in children to damage tissue and lower learning and IQ.
Their airways are also smaller and sensitive to inflammation, aggravating wheezing, asthma and respiratory distress. Children’s airways are also more permeable and allow pollutants to slip easily into their lungs and bloodstream, causing and exacerbating life-threatening diseases. Studies show that people who grow up in polluted neighbourhoods have more respiratory problems in later life.
Two billion children live in areas where pollution levels exceed the minimum air quality standards set by the World Health Organization (WHO), estimated Unicef’s Clean the Air for Children report using satellite imagery. Of them, 300 million children live in areas with extremely toxic air, including Delhi and several cities in north and central India.
Just do it
Air pollution kills 1.59 million people in India each year, with 13 of the world’s most polluted cities being in India. If the situation is left unattended, things will get worse. Urban outdoor air pollution went up by 8% between 2008 and 2013, estimated the WHO. And children are among the worst hit.
Under-5 deaths from polluted outdoor air could be 50% higher than current estimates by 2050, estimates the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. A study in the journal Nature is more pessimistic and predicts deaths doubling by 2050. The OECD study estimates the total annual costs of air pollution currently at 0.3% of global GDP, which is expected to go up to approximately 1% of GDP by 2060.
Meeting global air quality standards for PM2.5 could prevent 2.1 million deaths across all ages and improve the health of many millions. Instead of knee-jerk reactions and “red alert” warnings that involve shutting down schools, construction and non-essential businesses and urging people to stay indoors, the government and pollution-control agencies need to focus on an action plan to stem the toxic tide.
An efficient public transport system to reduce people’s dependence on fossil-fuel burning cars is a start, as is moving industrial sites, smoldering dumps and electrical generators that burn biomass fuels away from residential neighbourhoods, and adopting sustainable energy solutions to reduce reliance on polluting sources of energy.
Children should not have to seek legal intervention to protect their right to life. We must make air cleaner for them.