Wear masks and plant trees—air pollution is killing us

India ranks 174th on air quality among 178 countries, according to the 2014 Yale Environmental Performance Index. Particulate matter in the air of 180 Indian cities was six times higher than the standard set by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Indoor and outdoor air pollution are now the third and fifth leading cause of death in the country, causing more than a million premature deaths ever year.

The main pollutants in the air are sulphur dioxide, ozone, various oxides of nitrogen and particulate matter of different sizes. Breathing polluted air slowly leads to diseases that affect the lungs, the heart and even the brain. That pollution causes these diseases may not be immediately evident, but the WHO’s large data collection points unequivocally to the causal link.

All shook up

What is probably more troubling is that the problem has suddenly got worse. The number of deaths caused in India by outdoor air pollution has increased six-fold since 2000. A number of factors have contributed to this rise: reliance on and increased use of coal-powered power plants, growing number of vehicles, improper urban planning and poor enforcement of regulations.

Just like clean water, clean air is a public utility and governments have a duty to ensure that these are available to its citizens. Central and state governments have been making some changes, but they haven’t helped much. In Delhi—judged by the WHO in May 2014 as the city with the most polluted air among 1,600 cities across 91 countries—the government has tried to implement various schemes, such as the use of natural gas for public transport, but without much improvement in air quality.

Air pollution has a negative effect on the economy, too. According to the World Bank, its ill-effects cost India ₹ 3.3 lakh crores annually, which is 3% of the gross domestic product. Not enough is being done to address the problem.

A little less conversation, a little more action please

I believe the problem is so huge that it is too late to wait for government’s actions to protect our health. Fortunately, there are steps that citizens can take to deal with air pollution, which can significantly increase the quality of the air we breath.

If you or someone you know burns wood for the purpose of cooking or heating water, you could improve your health by stopping or altering this practice. Most cookstoves of this kind do not burn the wood efficiently, releasing very harmful particulate matter. If you cannot afford to replace wood with natural gas for cooking, the cheaper option would be to buy a subsidised improved cookstove available from government outlets.

The easiest way to deal with outdoor pollution is to wear a mask. Look for N95 masks which are relatively easy to find and fairly cheap. Whatever mask you buy, ensure that it covers your nose and mouth fully, because any air gaps will render the effort ineffective. Masks are not as uncomfortable as they look, but they are definitely not stylish. Yet, by wearing a mask, you are not just taking care of your health but also making a public display of protest against the government whose duty it is to ensure that air quality be improved.

The final thing you can do to deal with outdoor pollution is to plant trees, specifically outside your house. A recent study by scientists at Lancaster University showed that a line of young birch trees outside the house can cut particulate matter entering the house by half. Trees are also highly effective when planted along busy roads, because they can absorb not just carbon dioxide but also ozone, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide.

For too many years we have taken the air we breath for granted. We have ignored the risk that the tragedy of the commons could afflict this abundant public utility. Let’s hope we can fix it before it’s too late.

First published in Lokmat Times.

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