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Unlivable Planet

Jaydev Jana |

The man has been endowed with reason, with the power to create, so that he can add to what he’s been given. But up to now, he hasn’t been a creator, only a destroyer.

~ Anton Chekhov

It is generally believed that life today is healthier than in the past. The view is endorsed by doctors and medical scientists as well. They claim that mortality rates have fallen; that people live longer, in more sanitary conditions; and in consequence, we are all healthier. And yet they seldom admit that while medical science has almost eradicated many of the killer diseases of the past, these have been replaced by an increasing list of new disorders ~ cancer, asthma, heart disease, multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), allergies, pesticides and chemical poisoning, infertility and so on.

These are often less obvious but no less dangerous. In the words of Rachel Carson: ‘For the first time in the history of the world, every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death.’  We have become vulnerable to toxicity in the environment. The point of contestation is not how healthy we are in the modern, post-industrial society… but how unhealthy.

Public health is in crisis. Air quality, the purity of drinking water, food safety, road safety, proper sanitation are under threat. This reaffirms the collective outcome of years of “non-eco-friendly practices” that are undertaken in the name of progress, convenience, modernity and industrialization. To be more precise, we can again quote Carson: ‘The most alarming of man’s assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials.’ It is obvious that the first casualty of environmental pollution is our health. Across the world, pollution has assumed a vast and unprecedented scale. It is pervasive.

According to a WHO survey, 13 out of 25 most polluted cities in the world are in India. A large number of Indians are inhaling polluted air in cities. It penetrates deep into the lungs and affects the cardiovascular system, resulting in extreme health risks. India has the highest record of respiratory diseases. It appears from the National Health Profile (NHP)-2015 survey, conducted by the Central Bureau of Health Intelligence of the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, that there were around 3.5 million reported cases of acute respiratory infections in 2014, which is higher than the previous year by about 1.4 lakh cases and also indicates at least a 30 per cent increase since 2010.

India accounts for a quarter of deaths worldwide and caused by the two most chronic respiratory diseases ~ chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma, according to the latest Global Burden of Disease study. Though genetic factors can influence respiratory health, environmental factors make us still more vulnerable. There are several respiratory diseases that are triggered by genes and environment ~ asthma, COPD, bronchitis, lung cancer, pneumonia, allergies etc.

Respiratory diseases cause serious debilitating conditions that can damage the quality of life and result in untimely deaths, not to ignore the huge cost of treatment. According to the Lancet’s Global Burden of Diseases around 30 per cent of all premature deaths due to air pollution in India are caused by respiratory and lung diseases.

Biologically speaking, ‘children are not just little adults.’ They are more vulnerable to air pollution because of certain factors. Their brains and other organs are in a developing stage; compared to adults, they have a large lung surface area relative to their weight and also inhale more air; they often breathe through their mouths, bypassing the filters of nasal passages, as a result pollutants go deeper into their lungs; they spend more time outdoors and this increases exposure; their internal air passageways are smaller, which means that the lung tissue surface is exposed per volume of air they inhale; immaturity of children’s enzyme and immune systems that detoxify pollutants increase their sensitivity to air pollutants. The list of known or suspected damage includes low birth weight, birth defects, autism, asthma and other lung disorders, learning problems and obesity.

Air pollution also impacts the elderly. The lungs of an older person are less elastic and hence become less capable of filtering clean air and disposing off the pollutants. Furthermore, they are not equipped to face the consequences of polluted air because of their weaker immune system. Though it is unclear which of the pollutants are most damaging, it is fairly certain that they are more vulnerable to particulate matter (PM) in the air.

The inhaled PMs infiltrate the very depths of the lung bronchioles where they cannot be cleared by the weakened lungs. Those inhaled particles reach the small “airways” and alveoli and cause chronic breathing troubles as well as cardiovascular problems.

Moreover, as lungs do not get enough air owing to the blockage of airways, the rest of the body gets deprived of the required oxygen. Essentially, without oxygen the heart can stop beating or beat irregularly, and the brain gets damaged, and the patient can have chronic COPD or even respiratory disease.

Medical practitioners and scientists have noticed a link between air pollution and illnesses ranging from dementia, Alzheimer’s and diabetes to debilitating eye disorders. There have been growing incidents of premature deliveries and children with chromosomal and genetic disorders. A study by the University of Montana (US), along with other research institutions, has established that air pollution, in the form of PM2.5, affects the levels of metabolites responsible for cognitive functions among young people who are the carriers of Alzheimer’s gene.

The critical gene interacts with air particles to accelerate the aging of the brain. Another population-based study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease in January 2015, reveals that an increase in the levels of PM2.5 by 4.34 microgram per cubic meter can increase the risk of Alzheimer’s by 138 per cent. India can hardly afford to ignore the study as air pollution levels have crossed safe limits on several occasions in the past few years. In 2015, as many as some 41 cities had to contend with bad air quality in nearly 60 per cent of the total days monitored, as per the latest data released by the Central Pollution Control Board.

To make the planet livable, it is imperative that every individual should contribute to safeguarding the present as well as the generations to come from the perils of environmental pollution. As, Al Gore, the Nobel Peace Laureate, said: ‘I cannot stand the thought of leaving my children with a degraded earth and a diminished future.’

(The writer is a retired IAS officer)