India, own the agenda for clean air

After all, clean air is a public good and the adverse health effects of polluted air affect everyone

By Prerna Makkar, Sarman Singh
Published: Wednesday 26 June 2019
Smog over Delhi. Photo: Getty Images
Smog over Delhi. Photo: Getty Images Smog over Delhi. Photo: Getty Images

Air pollution is a silent killer, causing over seven million deaths every year globally due to poor outdoor and indoor air quality.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 9 out of 10 people worldwide today breathe air which is unsafe, with most of these people living in low- and middle-income countries.

While the adverse health effects of polluted air affect everyone, regardless of their age, economic status or where they live, our most vulnerable populations — children, elderly and the poor — are hit the hardest.

There are many air pollutants such as sulfates, nitrates, and black carbon but exposure to tiny particulates smaller than 2.5 microns, known as PM2.5, which penetrate the lungs, is generally used as an overall measure of air quality.

High levels of air pollution can aggravate respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, accelerate aging of the lungs, and cause diseases such as asthma, bronchitis and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. 

An estimated one-third of deaths globally from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease are caused by air pollution. Toxic air has now also been linked to dementia, Alzheimer’s and declining mental health.

These impacts are so significant that the international community working on prevention and control of non-communicable diseases, has recently added environmental risk factors to its list of the traditional four risk factors for these diseases — tobacco use, harmful use of alcohol, unhealthy diets, and physical inactivity.

Air pollution is the deadliest form of pollution and has serious health and economic costs. The Cost of Air Pollution: Strengthening the economic case for action, a joint study of The World Bank and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, estimated that premature deaths caused by air pollution cost the world $225 billion in lost labour income and a staggering $5 trillion in welfare losses in 2013. 

India is among the most polluted countries, with most places in the country exceeding WHO defined safe air quality standards multiple times over. Nearly half of the worst 50 polluted cities in the world are in India.

An estimated 1.2 million deaths in India are caused by air pollution, both outdoors and in households, which is now the second-most serious risk factor for public health in the country after malnutrition, contributing to 6.4 per cent of all healthy years of life lost in 2016, according to India: Health of the Nation’s States Report.

The country is experiencing high rates of development and urbanisation, so it is imperative that these economic ambitions are balanced with a sustainable environment.

“The government is very committed to the issues of clean air and sustainable environment and we are undertaking several efforts. We have just launched the National Clean Air Programme which, I feel, is going to be a game changer. People’s health and well-being are our priority and we would like to achieve this in partnership with the people,” says CK Mishra, Secretary, Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and former Secretary, Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

It is time for citizens to step forward and own the agenda for clean air. After all, clean air is a public good and the adverse health effects of polluted air affect everyone.

Let us make clean air a top priority and an election issue. Let us all make a resolve and play our part to ‘Beat Air Pollution’.

Prerna Makkar is the director of Health Compact and Sarman Singh is the director and CEO of All lndia Institute of Medical Sciences, Bhopal

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