Hell in our cities

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Friday 31 July 1998

Nature means life. It also means death.

Whether it means life or death depends on the quality of nature. And whereas progress can greatly enhance our ability to fight disease, it also has the extraordinary ability to degrade the quality of nature and increase the load of disease.

Soil degradation can reduce the quality of our food and deforestation can reduce the availability of plants to make current medicines and medicines for the future.

Urbanisation, industrialisation and agricultural modernisation can pollute the land, water, air and our food. And when all these elements of nature get degraded or polluted, human life will soon get into trouble.

If the pollution results in greater amount of microbes reaching our bodies, or in the increase in disease carrying organisms like mosquitoes, then we will face epidemics of diseases like diarrhoea, dysentery, malaria and dengue. Diseases that we have known for ages and diseases like dengue which we have not known for so long.

If the pollution results in greater amounts of chemicals getting into our bodies, especially in small but sustained quantities, we cannot even be sure what will hit us, our children and our unborn generations. They may not kill us in a day or a week or a month. They will lead to many diseases that we don't even know of. Here we are dealing with the frontiers of both environmental and health sciences. There are many areas where scientists just don't know and there are many areas where they just don't know enough.

In some cases, even the body does not know what to do with these chemicals. When faced with a substance like ddt for the first time, it does not even know how to break it down or get rid of it. It simply stores it in the body fat and it comes out in fatty substances like mothers' milk. People in Delhi who live far away from agricultural farms have still been found to have one of the world's highest levels of ddt in body fat and human milk.

From a place like India, pesticides like ddt can ride the winds and the waves and go all the way to the polar regions. Scientists in the 1980s were amazed to find extremely high levels of ddt and polychlorinated biphenyl (pcbs) -- a chemical used in electric transformers -- in the bodies of Eskimos, people who hadn't even heard of them.

These constant chemical exposures can cause not just cancer and heart problems but also brain disorders, hormonal problems, reproductive problems and problems that will show up in future generations. The most alarming evidence in the last decade has come from scientists researching wildlife living in polluted waters -- like fish and frogs. Young mallard ducklings did not respond to the maternal call. Frogs which emerged from tadpoles showed severe abnormalities in limb developments. Fish showed neurobehavioural changes.

Can this happen to humans? Well, a Danish scientist shocked the world in the early 1990s, that a review of studies from across the world, shows that the sperm count of human males is declining. There is now a world-wide research programme to ascertain this in greater detail. And now a study from the Institute for Research in Reproduction is telling us that a similar phenomenon can also be noticed in India. The study found that less than 30 per cent men had semen with normal characteristics. It also found a correlation with the environment. These people lived in areas where high levels of air pollution, consisting of lead, sulphur dioxide and suspended particulate matter were the norm.

When we look at a deadly disease like cancer, data shows it matters where you live. One out of every 10 to 15 persons living in Delhi, Chennai, Mumbai and Bangalore will get cancer. This means every second to third family in these cities will face this trauma. In Bhopal, the incidence of cancer is less and in rural areas for which there is data, the incidence goes down to one out of 20-36 persons. About half of that in the metros.

The society can even get confusing signals from medical data. Because we know how to cure diseases caused by microbes and as medical services spread, we may actually keep on increasing longevity. But environmental degradation will make us live more unhealthy lives -- it is far more difficult to measure morbidity or illness than death itself -- and many will die at a young age from deadly diseases like cancer. And who knows what will affect our unborn children? Do we have a right to leave such a horrible environment for them?

The ill effects of pollution can be prevented. And that is what we need to do. We need progress. Even poverty can change the environment adversely and affect health. Poor women inhale far more smoke from chulhas than we who live in the cities. Therefore, our scientists must constantly monitor the changes in the environment and repeatedly tell us what threats we are facing or are likely to face. We will then have to consciously weed out those substances which threaten our bodies and not do things that allow microbes and mosquitoes to breed. And if technology cannot help to find a substitute, then we must tighten our belts and eschew those needs. If Gandhi was relevant in poverty, his message remains relevant even in wealth. We must tread gently on the Earth. Or else the Earth will just make life hell for us.

Anil Agarwal

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