Why are we all falling ill

The pursuit of unsustainable economic growth, bad development policy, lack of good science, and poverty are a prescription for ill-health. These result in a bad living environment which contributes significantly to morbidity. A conference on the state of India's health, the first of its kind, was organised by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). This was attended by the best medical experts and leading scientists who sought to provide answers to medical problems posed by a host of new environment-related illnesses. Down To Earth reports

Published: Wednesday 30 September 1998

Why are we all falling ill

-- (Credit: Photographs: Amit Shanker /CSE)"Fifty per cent of the malaria cases are human made. Government spreads malaria by policy"

V PSharma
Former director of Malaria Research Centre, Delhi

"Plague will erupt in small pockets along the Indira Gandhi canal (in the Thar desert). I hope it does not happen"

Ishwar Prakash
Rodent expert, with the Zoological Survey of India, Jodhpur

"Recent estimates of premature deaths in India from indoor air pollution range from 500,000 to two million per year"

Kirk R Smith
Professor of environmental health sciences at the
University of California, Berkeley, USA

When scientists rain down hard facts, it is hard not to take notice. Any hard-boiled sceptic would wince, hearing, for instance, a scientist from the Institute for Research in Reproduction (IRR), Mumbai, say that the sperm count of Indian men has fallen by about 43 per cent in the past 15 years. The sceptic would be forced to ask: Is the human race heading towards extinction?

The scientist in question was expressing her concern at the state of environmental health during a recently held conference in New Delhi under the auspices of the Centre for Science and Environment.

Whether the human race is hurtling towards extinction or not, one thing is clear environmental changes are affecting our lives. "Research has shown that environmental degradation has been a major factor contributing to the drop in sperm count," says Kamala Gopalakrishnan of IRR (See box: Count down?). International scientists believe that this unnatural decline is linked to the increased exposure of human beings to plastics. While they are yet to fully understand the dynamics, it is clear that toxins present in the environment are leading to unnatural changes in the human body.

Poor environmental quality is directly responsible for about one-fourth of all preventable illnesses, says the national research professor at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), V Ramalingaswami. It causes two-thirds of all preventable illnesses in children, the professor noted in his keynote address to the conference. Quoting a World Bank (WB) study, he said that air pollution reduction to World Heath Organisation (WHO) standards would result in 19 million fewer hospital admissions on account of respiratory illnesses. In highly polluted cities like Calcutta, Delhi and Kanpur, this would mean that the mortality rate would go down by 15 per cent, he noted.

"By international standards, India has a disproportionately higher burden of health due to air pollution," says Kseniya Lvosky, a WB environmental economist. In the 12 largest cities of India, the economic costs of health damages take away nearly one-tenth of the income generated from all economic activities, according to Lvosky.

Grim statistics indeed. Experts discussed puddles, water coolers, earthquakes, floods, dams and latrines while trying to address proliferation of disease vectors such as mosquitoes and rodents, and also, natuarally, the crucial issue of how, diseases spread.

Addressing the valedictory session of the three-day conference, Union minister of environment and forests Suresh Prabhu responded to the grim scenario by announcing on the spot, the formation of an expert committee on health and environment and a secretary-level inter-ministerial committee to address the health impact of environmental degradation in India.

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