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.

Curious Bends  –  Delhi’s pollution, faked data, AIDS epidemic and more

1. The puzzle of Delhi’s air pollution

Delhi has the world’s worst ambient air quality. In the decade since a chunk of its public transport moved to using compressed natural gas from petroleum, the problem has devolved into other socioeconomic issues. People whose power needs the city can’t meet use diesel generators. The number of cars on the road have shot up. Even though industries have been moved outside city limits, their smoke hangs like a pall together with that from burning post-harvest rice stalks from neighbouring states. And a comparison with Beijing, where the civilian outcry against worsening pollution was pronounced, shows how much worse Delhi has it. (8 min read)

2. Indian scientist fakes data, but institute’s response is commendable

A scientist at the Institute of Microbial Technology in Chandigarh has been found to have fabricated data for seven papers published in the last year, all of which are now being retracted. The fabrication was brought to the attention of the director of the institute by a past supervisor of the scientist, and, instead of pushing it under the rug, the director followed the right procedures to start an investigation this January. Many Indian researchers both in India and abroad have had their work retracted, but as long as institutional provisions to deal with such misconduct are strong, it should help to curtail ills. (4 min read)

3. Clever experiment with mice reveals ovarian cancer’s secrets
Ovarian cancer starts spreading much earlier than other cancers do, and the first tissue that is its victim tends to be belly fat. It was previously thought this happens because of the physical proximity, but new research shows that the spread occurs through the blood. This matters because the proteins revealed to be involved in the process are targets of drugs meant for other types of cancers, and they could now be used to curtail the spread of ovarian cancer. (3 min read)

+ The author, Anwesha Ghosh, is a PhD student at the University of Rochester.

4. Give back to the locals if you profit from their knowledge

Fifty-one countries from around the world have ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity, which from October will give more legal backing to providers and users of genetic resources. These are commonly used to create better performing crop varieties. “Now, if a company or a person is accessing genetic resources or traditional knowledge for commercial purpose, they would be bound to share a part of their earning and profits with the community which has been conserving it.” (2 min read)

5. No one is tracking the lead that tyres leak

Lead is a neurotoxin that causes brain damage, and is most harmful to pregnant women and children. It has also been found that lead poisoning can be the cause of violent crime. Global campaigns to reduce the amount of lead in products such as fuel and paints have been going on for many decades with good success. However, in India, it seems that the campaign hasn’t been effective against lead’s use in tyres, where it is used to balance weights in the wheel. (3 min read)

Chart of the week

This week the annual international AIDS conference begins in Melbourne (despitethe loss of researchers who were onboard MH17 that was shot down in Ukraine). The global fight against AIDS is being won, but some numbers, such as those below, are worrying. Pakistan has a population that is about one-sixth that of India, but the AIDS-related mortality is much lower in the neighbouring country. More form UNAIDS here.

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