Air pollution is the most underestimated cause of health problems today: Opinion

Wind is blowing pollution from a coal burning power plant.

Written by Written by Abhinav Gupta, CEO, ActiveBuilding

Air pollution was responsible for 1.6 million deaths in 2019 in India alone, as per the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health. Majority of these deaths were caused by particulate pollution from PM2.5.

A combination of urbanization, climate change and biodiversity loss have made air pollution a growing and deadly concern for environmentalists, researchers and policy-makers over the years.

With more scientific data available on the deteriorating air quality in various parts of the world, research has allowed us to categorize the pollutants found in the air we breathe and understand their health implications.

Recently, the World Heart Federation (WHF), American College of Cardiology (ACC), American Heart Association (AHA) and European Society of Cardiology (ESC) released a joint statement calling for urgent action against air pollution stating that 50% of the estimated 6.7 million deaths attributable to air pollution in 2019 are due to cardiovascular diseases.

What makes air pollution lethal

WHO Global Air Quality guidelines identify 4 dominant disease-causing pollutants found in ambient air pollution – Particulate Matter (PM), Ozone (O 3 ), Nitrogen Dioxide (NO 2 ) and Sulphur Dioxide (SO 2 ). Ideal composition of healthy air should be 78% nitrogen (N), 21% oxygen (O 2 ) and 1% of other gases and water vapour, however, the above pollutants disrupt this balance.

When these pollutants dominate the air we inhale, various foreign matter enter into our bodies causing discomfort and diseases. PM10 in the air we breathe can lodge into our lungs, whereas, PM2.5 can penetrate the lung barrier and enter into the bloodstream, causing disorders like acute lower respiratory infections, cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer.

Ozone is a major factor in asthma morbidity and mortality, while nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide also can play a role in asthma, bronchial symptoms, lung inflammation and reduced lung function.

Manifold consequences of poor air quality

While the older population is at risk due to comorbidities, children are vulnerable as their organs are still developing and face challenges in physical as well as neurological growth. According to a new study led by Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) researchers, children living in areas with higher air pollution and lower level of green space might have up to 62% increased

risk of developing ADHD. Women face a greater threat than men as their chances of premature births, underdeveloped pregnancies and neonatal deaths increase along with the possibility of reproductive and hormonal disorders, in addition to breast and ovarian cancers. 

New studies also link mental health disorders to air pollution.

According to data from China published in 2018, every 1 standard deviation rise in Particulate Matter over the average PM2.5

level increases the likelihood of having a mental illness (including depression) by 6.67%. A meta-analysis of evidence connecting air pollution and a range of mental health problems, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, reviewed study data from 16

countries and concluded that people exposed to higher levels of air pollution are more likely to experience depression or commit suicide.

Growing awareness among citizens

According to the latest State of Global Air report on air quality and health published on August 17, 2022, Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai are among the top 20 most polluted cities in the world. 

Most homes in urban cities in India find high PM2.5 concentration in their home when subjected to an indoor air quality test, even if the AQI level in their city is not that poor. As awareness increases among individuals about air quality and household pollution, we see a rise in sustainable living choices, investment in purifiers and air quality testing to ensure safe and healthy air in homes and offices.

Authorities need to step-up

Everyday few months, we see different initiatives and plans being implemented by the authorities, which look great on paper but have no real effect on the air pollution crisis. For the policy-makers of a growing economy like India which exists in two halves: one that orders every luxury to its doorstep and another that struggles every day for a daily wage and a one-time meal; air pollution may not be a top priority at the moment, even though we are sitting on a catastrophe waiting to happen.


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