Authors – Shreya Dasgupta & Smruti Jain
Human beings have exploited the earth’s most essential natural resources for ages. Such exploitation in the form of industrialization and modernization across the globe has resulted in alarming levels of air, water, and soil pollution, creating a lethal threat for all the creatures.
Environmental pollution is a silent killer we cannot escape; it is all around us, slowly destroying our health. The World Health Organization (WHO) emphasizes on improving health standards by combating all kinds of pollution to ensure disease prevention. In a time when health has become an invaluable treasure, it is important to understand how decreasing pollution can actually prevent diseases.
Dangers of Air Pollution
Air pollution is today the most dangerous public health hazard across the globe. WHO data estimates that around seven million people die annually due to air pollution worldwide. It is now the third most common cause of death in India, among all health risks ranking just above smoking.
Life expectancy in India has gone down by 2.6 years due to deadly diseases caused by air pollution, as per a recent report by the Centre for Science and Environment. Further, according to a new study by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, people infected with COVID-19 virus who live in regions with high levels of air pollution in the US are more likely to die from the disease than people who live in less polluted areas.
Ultrafine particulate matter of 2.5μ or less penetrate the lungs and enter the bloodstream causing, head to toe damage as such:
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary diseases kill half a million Indians annually and account for 49% of illnesses caused by air pollutants.
- Lung cancer caused by particulate matter and nitrous dioxide (NO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), ozone, and carbon monoxide leads to most cancer-related deaths among Indian males. Doctors at the Centre for Chest Surgery & Lung Transplantation analyzed the data of 150 lung cancer patients at their center and found that nearly 21% of them were below the age of 50 years with five of them under 30 years. Nearly 50% of the patients studied were non-smokers.
- Researchers from IIT-Delhi and the Tata Centre for Development studied the effects of exposure to pollution during pregnancy. They concluded that pollution results in poor childhood health such as stunted growth and underweight. Similarly, diabetes, ischemic heart diseases, and stroke account for 37% of pollution-led diseases.
- Noxious gases such as NO2 and SO2 are known to cause reactions like itchy eyes, burning throat and breathing trouble. This was experienced by the residents of Tuticorin when appalling amounts of SO2 emissions were released from the Sterlite Copper plant.
Freshwater sources around the world are now threatened by water pollution due to indiscriminate release of toxic effluents from industries, urban sewage and agricultural run-offs. In India, citizens not only battle with water scarcity but its contamination as our water quality ranks 120th among 122 countries:
- Over 1 lakh people in India die of water-borne diseases such as Typhoid, Cholera, Paratyphoid Fever, Dysentery, Jaundice, Hepatitis-A & E and Amoebiasis.
- The groundwater in more than 200 districts as chemicals such as fluorides, arsenic, iron, and salinity is above tolerable levels.
- 65 million Indians suffer from fluorosis, most commonly seen in Rajasthan, while West Bengal is the hotspot for arsenicosis, affecting more than 5 million people.
- Reckless use of chemical pesticides seep contaminates the groundwater system and its consumption has been suspected to cause an alarming number of cancer cases, concentrated in the Malwa region of Punjab.
Other types of Environmental Pollution in India
- Pesticide poisoning is a plague in India and organophosphate poisoning accounts for 12.8% of all cases.
- Endosulfan poisoning is one of the worst and longest-running pesticide poisoning cases in India. Particularly, it affected 5,000 people in Kerala with neurotoxicity, late sexual maturity, physical deformities.
- Noise pollution is an emerging health hazard that threatens our physical and psychological well being. Constant exposure to noise greater than 70 decibels leads to stress and a higher risk of developing hearing loss, hypertension, migraine, and heart-related disorders.
Solution to Pollution
Pollution problems affect everyone and efforts are being undertaken by the government and non-governmental organizations to restore ecological balance such as restoring rivers. The complete lockdown due to the COVID-19 crisis has proven that nature is capable of healing itself rapidly in the absence of human activity. India and cities all over the world are experiencing a record reduction in air pollution to the point that the Himalayan mountains were observed from 250kms away in Jalandhar. Metro cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, and Bangalore are now breathing easy with an improvement in the air quality index.
According to the Central Pollution Control Board, nitrogen dioxide levels have decreased by 71% and are expected to fall further. Rivers like Ganga and Yamuna have also shown a sharp decline in pollution parameters, making them much safer for irrigation and consumption by more than 5 million people. These instances are proof that India is capable of reducing pollution levels substantially while improving health standards.
In 2018, the citizens of Tuticorin took to the streets protesting the rampant pollution of air and water resources by the Sterlite Copper plant. Since its subsequent closure, the region has seen a dramatic decrease in the SO2 levels. Awareness and action among citizens is an important pillar in this movement to decrease pollution and thus prevent diseases.
A study by the American Thoracic Society found that reduction in air pollution yields a dramatic impact on health outcomes, as well as a reduction in disease incidences. Hence, to protect the nation’s health and resources, the government must establish stringent laws to reduce pollution. Measure to ban endosulfan pesticide is one such precedent set by the government against polluting chemicals. The National Clean Air Programme (2018) is a welcome step in this direction to extend the air quality monitoring network, conduct intensive awareness and monitoring campaigns, and create city-specific action plans across India.
Further, the government ought to incentivize eco-friendly industries and sustainable manufacturing, while curbing those responsible for the prevailing pollution levels. Responsible and viable agricultural practices should be encouraged whereas innovative ideas should be sought to stop activities like stubble burning. As individuals, we must make sustainable lifestyle choices like carpooling, using public transport, composting of wet waste as well as minimizing the use of chemical herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers.
If not tackled now, pollution will not only deteriorate the health of the present generations but also affect the generations to come. Educating people, authorities and making collective efforts to achieve the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement is imperative to make India a sustainably developed superpower. Only by protecting the environment can we protect our health.