When air pollution strikes us — and future generations as well

Sanjay Wazir | Updated on November 08, 2019

Danger in the air Because of their breathing rate, children tend to inhale more pollutants as compared to adults Reuters   -  REUTERS

Air pollution kills. There’s no simpler way to put this.

Earlier this week, a “public-health emergency” was declared in Delhi, as air pollution breached the danger levels. Children, expecting mothers and people with chronic diseases were the most vulnerable to its ill effects. However, people tend to overlook the fact that neither is air pollution city-centric nor season-specific. And for that very reason it needs a concerted effort to tackle it, especially in the interest of our future generations.

According to the World Health Organization, almost 93 per cent of all children in the world are exposed to the level of fine particulate material (PM 2.5) higher than the air quality guideline levels and the number is almost 99 per cent in the South-East Asia region.

Children very vulnerable

Children become extremely vulnerable to air pollution since their organs, especially the lungs and brain, for instance, are still developing. And as they grow, their exposure becomes prolonged, making them that much more susceptible to its harmful effects. Explaining the effect on health, the WHO says, “one-third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease are due to air pollution”.

There is also increasing evidence of air pollution being responsible for decreasing immunity and increasing incidence of childhood cancers. Research also suggests that both pre-natal and post-natal exposure to air pollution could result in impairment of a child’s neuro-development, resulting in lower cognitive outcomes and development of behavioural disorders like autistic spectrum disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity disorders.

The vulnerability of children comes from the fact that they are physically more active and play outside, resulting in higher exposure than adults. And because of their breathing rate, they tend to inhale more pollutants as compared to adults. This further triggers recurrent respiratory illnesses like asthma, chronic bronchitis and wheezing.

And it’s not just children, but exposure of pregnant women to air pollution also results in defects in the unborn children be it in terms of a premature birth, lower birth weight and other possible congenital defects. Evidence suggests that prenatal exposure to air pollution can predispose individuals to cardiovascular disease later in life.

Air pollution must be addressed on a war footing to protect the health of our future generations. Individually, we need to co-operate and reduce our carbon footprint — through steps such as, for instance, avoiding lighting firecrackers during festivals and using carpools or public transport to travel. Lactating mothers should continue to breastfeed their children below six months of age as mother’s milk is protection against severe lower respiratory tract infections.

Governments and non-government organisations need to run campaigns so people realise that air pollution is not just affecting our own health, but also that of our children. There is a need for a single nodal agency to take control and implement the plan to reduce air pollution. Air pollution is a national problem affecting every one and its control should not be marred by political compulsions.

As rightly said by nurse and environmental campaigner Terri Swearingen, “We are living on this planet as if we have another one to go to”. If air pollution levels continue to rise at the current rate, our future generations will have to deal with the consequences of an Earth that is plunged into an unprecedented environmental crisis.


The writer is Director, Neonatal intensive care unit & Paediatrician, Cloudnine Group of Hospitals. Views are personal

Published on November 08, 2019

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