There is no non-smoker in India. You may not even touch a cigarette, you may even be a just-born, but you still smoke the equivalent of 5-7 cigarettes a day. That is how bad the air pollution situation is, not just in Delhi (where it is worse) but all across the country.

Each person living in the National Capital Region may assume he is ‘smoking’ not less than 16 cigarettes a day. That was the central message left by Dr Arvind Kumar, Chairman, Centre for Chest Surgery, and Director, Institute of Robotic Surgery at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, New Delhi, at a recent media workshop on air pollution held here. T he workshop was organised by 'Healthy Energy Initiative', a global collaboration of health professionals and health organisations, which advocates shift away from fossil fuels.

India has the dubious distinction of being the country with the highest number of deaths due to air pollution, Dr Kumar said, quoting a WHO study. Most Indians are unaware of the enormity of the problem, said Dr Kumar, who is also the Founding and Managing Trustee of the Lung Care Foundation, New Delhi. Air pollution causes a huge range of problems, including lung cancer.

Earlier, lung cancer used to be common only among smokers, but today more than half of Dr Kumar’s lung cancer patients are people who do not smoke cigarettes. And, 95 per cent of lung cancer patients die in five years. Air pollution is a ‘national health emergency’, Dr Kumar said.

Myths busted

Dr Kumar said people ought to be aware of the myths around air pollution. One is that air pollution can be countered by wearing a mask. Most of the masks sold in pharmacies are useless for the purpose. Only ‘N 95 or N 99’ masks are effective, but only if worn tight across the nose. However, even they can only prevent large particles from getting into the lungs. For finer particles — P2.5 and less — masks are of no use. In any case, masks can keep out particulate matter, not gases. Harmful gases in the air, such as Sox and Nox, pass through the masks anyway, Dr Kumar said.

Another myth is that you can cure yourself of the ill-effects of air pollution by doing yoga. Yoga helps in enhancing lung capacity, true, but if the lungs are lined with particulate deposits, yoga cannot help remove them, Dr Kumar said. In fact, nothing can get the particles deposited in the lungs out. Once in, they stay in, and harm.

Finally, contrivances such as air purifiers are of little use, because the space they have any effect is extremely limited. When President Obama visited Delhi, the US Embassy had 1,800 air purifiers installed at various places the President would visit, Dr Kumar observed.

He said it was often a waste of money. He had seen five air purifiers, each costing several lakhs, in the room of a Member of Parliament in Delhi. This money could have been better spent in measures to bring down pollution.