Pollution on the rise, shorter lives

Pollution on the rise, shorter lives
Going for a morning walk and breathing in the flower-scented air is now a thing of the past. The first sight that hits the eye is overflowing garbage dumps. The first smell one absorbs is the rancid, putrid, stomach churning stench that pervades the atmosphere.

It has been long known that India has some of the most polluted cities in the world. Air pollution is severe and cuts short lives, besides having wide-ranging and deleterious effects on human health. Reality may be tough to digest, but some hard truths must be faced.

The major driving forces of air pollution in large cities, especially in megacities, are economic development, urbanisation, energy consumption, transportation, and rapid population growth. Of the world’s most-polluted cities, thirteen are in India. Pollution has a direct relationship with population density. More people, more air pollution.

As population explodes, its needs and wants multiply, industrial development leapfrogs and consumption increases. This chain reaction leads to an increase in per capita emissions. Since 1991, the population has been increasingly moving to cities; and urban households have shifted from biomass and waste to other energy sources such as hydrocarbons, biofuels, and other renewables.

The atmosphere gets polluted by physical, chemical or biological agents. Common causes of air pollution are industries, motor vehicles and household cooking fuels. Other factors include, garbage burning, restaurants, diesel generators, medical-waste incinerators, funeral pyres, soil-road dust, construction and demolition recycling. Common pollutants include particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, ozone, and nitrogen dioxide.

With India inviting the world to set up industries and manufacturing bases in regions away from cities, one can be sure that these clean places are also bound to get polluted unless stringent measures are imposed, not only in the initial stage but through every stage of development.

Production requires energy. Our largest energy source is coal, followed by petroleum and traditional biomass and waste. The country largely depends on coal for its energy needs, including electricity. Coal-based power plants produce 70 per cent of our electricity needs, but also spew 40 per cent of our total carbon dioxide emissions.

The Government’s commitment to produce clean energy -100,000 MW of solar power by 2022, a 33-fold rise from today’s level, may be a tall order. Financial viability of solar schemes and land availability in some states are bound to act as deterrents. Till then, no respite can be expected.
A study shows that 99.5 per cent of the Indian population breathes air that has pollutants way above levels considered safe by the World Health Organisation (WHO). In many parts of the country, including 77 per cent of urban areas, pollution levels exceed national standards. This is cutting short the lives of 660 million Indians by 3.2 years, says a study by environmental economists from University of Chicago, Harvard, and Yale, which was published this week in the Economic and Political Weekly.

Several hundred epidemiological studies, time-series studies in particular, have been conducted over the years on short-and long-term effects of air pollution on human health. The study also covers different age groups, including children and old adults. Their research has shown that long-term exposure to air pollutants increases the risk of respiratory illnesses such as allergies, chronic bronchitis, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and lung cancer. Children and elderly persons are particularly vulnerable to health effects of ozone, particulate matter (type of air pollution, comprising numerous tiny particles suspended in air), and other airborne toxicants.

As money power increases, a mad rush to own vehicles is compounding the problem. The number of vehicles is estimated to shoot five-fold -from 90 million in 2011 to 450 million in 2030. Consequently, annual emission of fine particles or particulate matter (known as PM2.5) is likely to escalate from 253,000 to 350,000 million tonnes during the same period, according to another finding.

A new study by British researchers has shown that drivers are exposed to very high levels of air pollution when they stop at red lights. Scientists had tracked drivers’ exposure to small bits of air pollution, called nanoparticles, which cars are known to emit. These harmful pollutants have been linked to increased risk of lung and heart diseases. According to their findings, at red lights, peak nanoparticle exposure was 29 times higher than in the case of free-flowing traffic.

Unless there is a quantum change in people’s behaviour and they begin to adopt more public and non-motorised transport, emissions will continue to be a big issue. The government needs to provide resources towards public transport and ensure that roads are maintained, traffic bottlenecks eased through traffic management, vehicle maintenance is promoted, and the fuel used is unadulterated.  Will all this become a reality in India, where a citizen’s health hardly seems to be a priority of any establishment?

The government must immediately address this issue on many fronts, with a multi-pronged approach if it is truly concerned about reducing air pollution, greenhouse gases and their impact on health. If health hazards are to be curbed, the country would require stringent emission control guidelines at par with those in the United States and Europe. Promulgation may be easy, but implementation difficult.

(The author is an independent journalist)
K V Venkatasubramanian

K V Venkatasubramanian

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