Climate Health Epi 1: How Do We Reduce the Impact of Air Pollution

Dr Marcus Ranney tells us how air pollution and climate health are interlinked and what we can do to fix it.

Published
Health News
4 min read

Editorial Assistant: Pranav Vinod

Editor: Purnendu Pritam

Camera: Sanjoy Deb

(In our new series on Climate Health, Dr Marcus Ranney will be bringing us the big picture on climate crisis and its impact on our health. In Episode one, we deep dive into air pollution)

Our kids have spent a large part of their lives locked up at home, wearing masks when stepping outside, gasping for air. And I’m not even talking about the current global pandemic. This has been our reality during winter months across many states in the country for nearly a decade.

Here are the facts that we do know:

  • Air pollution contributed to 6.67 million deaths worldwide.

  • State of Global Air Report of 2019, air pollution is the third leading risk factor for mortality, accounting for more than 12 Lakh deaths in India in 2017 alone

  • Outdoor and household particulate matter pollution contributed to the deaths of more than 116,000 Indian infants in their first month of life in 2019

The hard truth is that air pollution’s impact on health is very real. It’s impacting our lives now. Heart disease, stroke, lower respiratory infections, lung cancer, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) - the list goes on and Air Pollution is a risk factor for many of these leading causes of death.

There’s more. 14 of the world's 20 worst-polluted cities are in India.

Not one state in India met the WHO-recommended criteria of ambient particulate matter air quality of less than 10 μg/m³.

What’s worse, it’s impacting our children – you’ve seen those images of charred lungs – now imagine babies being born already with damaged lungs – compromised, even before they’ve taken their first breath.

All this disturbing data should shock us into demanding answers. But why is it then that year after year, we are left fighting to breathe?

Let me take you through it all one-by-one:

We live in crowded cities. At least 30 cities are densely populated with 100 persons per hectare or more. 30 percent of those households then have either a 2 or a 4 wheeler vehicle pumping out pollutants into our air. What’s happened in the pandemic world? Well, even more people are buying personal vehicles.

Liquid petroleum gas, LPG or natural gas has helped in most cities, but many households still continue to use polluting fuels like kerosene, biomass and coal. Our coal and thermal power generation capacity has shot up in a decade, with renewable resources trailing far behind.

Then there is the cyclical crop burning in farms - year after year, there has been little policy intervention.

Climate Change and Air Pollution Are Interlinked

So why am I telling you all this? What has the climate crisis got to do with our health? Isn’t it all environmental?

Well, they are two sides of the same coin. Air pollution is the driving force of the Earth's warming powered by the greenhouse effect.

The intensity and frequency of environmental changes has shot up – so you NOW have extreme weather events like heat waves, droughts, floods, thunderstorms and hurricanes.

A lot of these events have driven major urbanization – people moving to the cities - and that in turn has led to even more of an increase in vehicles, rising pollutants, impacting food supply, soil, fresh water and fresh air.

They’ve gifted us respiratory allergic diseases. Just ask your child – how many of his or her classmates have breathing issues?

The earth is warming up folks and it’s not good news.

Impact on Human Body

How does all of this impact me and my life? Let me break down for you what happens to our body as we take in this toxic air.

We breathe almost 10L of air per minute, 2.5 times that whilst exercising. When we are breathing in, we are taking in major air pollutants.

Particulate matter or “soot,” is linked with chronic bronchitis, aggravated asthma, cardiovascular effects like heart attacks, and premature death.

Ozone decreases lung function, causing respiratory symptoms via bronchoconstriction.

Feeling fatigued, dizzy, nauseous recently? Have your headaches increased? You could maybe thank Carbon monoxide poisoning for it.

Sulphur dioxide increases the risk of the skin and lung diseases.

And nitrogen oxide increases the risk of respiratory infections and can lead to pulmonary edema.

What Have We Been Doing to Fix It?

Look, all of this is scary data, and you want to know just what are we doing to fix this?

There’s been some movement:

  • 50 million households are now using clean cooking fuel under the Ujjwala scheme

  • Automakers are being enforced to reduce emissions by between 25 to 40% under new Bharat Stage VI norms

  • The National Clean Air Programme has been launched to reduce key air pollutants PM10 and PM2.5 by 20-30% by 2024

  • We are building our solar capacity by leaps and bounds.

These are the policy interventions – and hopefully soon we will begin to see some results.

What Can You and I Do?

So, while we wait for these big changes to happen, I am a big believer of “start small, start today” so here’s what you and I can do.

  • Switch off. Now. And while buying your electronics, look out for the energy star levels.

  • Wherever you can, shift to solar, start small and keep going.

  • Walking is great. It’s good cardio, and it’s good for the environment. So is taking public transport.

  • Keep your cars and bikes properly tuned. Turn off engines while waiting on traffic signals.

  • Buy local, eat local.

While all of these are small measures, they can all go a long way when all of us adopt these changes. It starts with us.

(Dr Marcus Ranney is a medical doctor and Champion of Wellbeing. A global thought leader, he is currently engaged in efforts to advocate towards a better understanding of the relationship with the climate crisis and our health. He is also the author of the book At the Human Edge.)

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