Air pollution, which has intensified in India, is associated with many health impacts. The different disease categories include cerebrovascular diseases and ischemic heart disease, leading to strokes and heart attacks. There has been a sharp rise in the number of cases reported with chest and throat diseases in India, and the doctors are blaming it on the worsening air quality due to increased pollution in the country.
Shockingly, India is now home to the 13 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world. According to India’s National Health Profile 2015, there were almost 3.5 million reported cases of acute respiratory infection (ARI) in 2014, an increase of 140,000 on the previous year, and a 30% increase since 2010.
Black carbon is one of the components of air pollution, and comes from incomplete combustion by diesel vehicles. It is known to be associated with a range of respiratory diseases, such as asthma, as well as with cardiovascular diseases.
The number of ARI cases has risen steadily in India over the last 15 years, even when population growth is taken into account. In 2001, less than 2,000 cases per 100,000 people had an ARI. In 2012, the number was 2,600 per 100,000.
The rise has occurred despite steady improvements in medical care and nutrition, as well as a shift away from using wood as fuel in rural areas. Together, this has mitigated many factors long blamed for the high levels of respiratory diseases in India.
Grim realities of Indian states
The latest World Bank report on leveraging urbanisation in South Asia has identified ‘air pollution’ as a big challenge for major cities in the region, including Delhi. While Delhi is the worst among 381 cities from developing countries, 19 of the 20 most polluted cities are from South Asia.
Referring to the World Health Organisation (WHO) report regarding the level of particulate matter (PM) 2.5 in the ambient air in cities, World Bank said that, of all the sources of congestion associated with the growth of cities, one of the most serious for health and human welfare is ambient air pollution from vehicle emissions and the burning of fossil fuels by industry. High concentrations of fine particulate matter, especially that of 2.5 microns or less in diameter (PM 2.5), which can penetrate deep into the lungs, increases the likelihood of asthma, lung cancer, severe respiratory illness, and heart disease.
Attention to the problem of air pollution in India has so far focused almost exclusively on the capital. One study found that half of Delhi’s 4.4 million schoolchildren would never recover full lung capacity. The rest of India has received less attention, though, in many cases, the problem is almost as acute, or possibly worse. The latest government figures show high numbers of lung and throat infections in the eastern state of West Bengal, the central state of Andhra Pradesh, as well as in tourist favourites Kerala and Rajasthan.
Mumbai also has pollution levels, which, though lower than in Delhi, exceed safe limits set by the Indian Government many times. Those limits are significantly higher than those set by international experts and Western governments.
Some of the latest reports suggested that Chennai experience worse pollution than anywhere else in India. Though the data has been challenged, it is clear that the levels of hazardous gases such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and ozone, as well as of deadly fine particulates, in the southern city have consistently breached the World Health Organisation’s maximum safe limit. Other major regional centres such as Mumbai, Bangalore and Bhopal are also badly affected.
A report this summer highlighted the damage air pollution is causing the famous Golden Temple in Amritsar, in Punjab. Blackspots within individual cities around India are rarely identified by official figures, either on the prevalence of respiratory illness or air quality.
The worst affected areas of Chennai, which has a population of around 4 million people, lie on its northern rim, where petrochemical works, car factories and coal-burning power stations exist close to residential areas. In July 2015, levels of deadly PM2.5 particulates in the Manali neighbourhood were 4 times WHO’s safe limit. These particulates lodge in the lungs and allow heavy metals to enter the bloodstream.
In other cities across the country, the problem was even worse. In Ahmedabad, in the west, levels of PM2.5s peaked at 8 times WHO’s limit for a 24-hour average. In Lucknow, in the north, levels reached 7 times the limit. Levels of CO2, nitrogen dioxide and ozone in less-known cities have also regularly exceeded WHO’s guidelines by huge margins.
India has the highest rate of death from respiratory disease in the world, according to WHO. The rate was 159 per 100,000 in 2012, about 10 times that of Italy, 5 times that of the UK, and twice that of China.
(Subscribe to read the full article from the November Issue of Safety Messenger Magazine 2015)