ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Haze and Smoke

We are killing our urban residents through the air they breathe.

It took an American President’s visit and news about the air purifiers ordered for him and his entourage for air pollution to become a talking point in the Indian media. The US embassy now has its own air monitors to determine levels of pollution. How shameful it is that we refuse to acknowledge the poisonous quality of the air we breathe until someone from distant shores comes here and comments on it. That the air in India’s cities is toxic is hardly news; what is new is the rate at which it is growing — 300% in the last 15 years. We can take small comfort from the fact that polluted air is democratic; it affects everyone. Yet, democracies are notoriously unequal; so too is the impact of pollution. If you are affluent, you can insulate yourself to some extent through air purifiers and air conditioners. But everyone else — the poor, the ordinary commuter using public transport, police personnel standing through the day at traffic crossings, people living in informal settlements — can avoid it only if they decide not to breathe at all. Perhaps that is the reason that outdoor pollution does not receive the urgent attention that it ought to get.

The basic facts about the inherent dangers of outdoor pollution are well known. Apart from sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, the most dangerous as far as human health is concerned is suspended particulate matter (SPM). This is broken up into two: PM10 (SPM that is 10 micrometres) and the finer and more dangerous PM2.5 (SPM that is 2.5 micrometres). It is the latter that is more easily inhaled and absorbed in the body leading to deadly consequences. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there were an estimated 3.7 million deaths of people under 60 years of age in 2012 that could be attributed to outdoor pollution. In South Asia, outdoor air pollution is the sixth most dangerous killer.

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