Last Sunday, over 3,000 people turned up in the morning to protest against the growing air pollution in Gurugram. Protests are part of our society, so it was not surprising to see people turning up in the Leisure Valley Park. But, what was surprising was the cause. Air pollution is still not a mainstream conversation in India, and therefore, expecting people to come on the streets for protest is a little unexpected. It was even more surprising that a large number of children came out demanding cleaner air.
This year, students across Delhi-NCR were forced to celebrate the Children’s Day at home. Schools were closed due to hazardous air quality. This is undoubtedly not the way that children would like to celebrate November 14. It comes in after a couple of pollution-related breaks that the schools got due to hazardous air quality.
Air pollution is a silent killer in India, and as per the State of Global Air 2018 report, the country lost 11 lakh people due to it. But, we have still not understood the severity of the issue. Children are the worst affected due to air pollution. Therefore, it was hearting as well as sad to see children demanding cleaner air because it is they who are the worst impacted due to toxic air. How? Let me explain a little more.
Impacts the birth
The impact of air pollution on children starts even before they are born. A research from Ohio, USA looking at the effects of PM2.5 exposure and childbirth found shocking results. Fine particulate matters, especially those that are less than 2.5 micrometres, also called PM2.5, pose a severe health threat. These particulate matters travel deep into the respiratory tract and deposit in the lungs causing all kinds of health issues from allergy to deadly cancer. The Ohio study found that for every 10 µg/m³ increase in pm 2.5 levels, there was a 19% increase in the chances of babies with congenital disabilities. What is also important to note is the fact that the US Environmental Protection Agency standard for particulate matter levels was 15 µg/m³. Our cities usually have PM2.5 levels in three digits. Therefore, it is not rocket science to understand the impact of such toxic air on childbirth in our country.
Reduces growth & development
A Southern California Children’s Health Study looking at 10-year data found that kids who grew up in more polluted areas had reduced lung capacity. To make the matter worse, the lungs of these children may never recover to the full size, thus impacting them lifelong. The impact is similar to children who grew up in homes where their parents smoked. Therefore, air pollution is forced smoking for children. We also need to remember that children’s lungs take time to develop. In fact, at birth, most children only have 20% of an adult’s lung mass. They get full lung only when they reach their teens. The lower lung capacity makes children breathe much quickly. It means they will inhale far more air pollutants than any of the adult. Children’s immune system is also not that strong, as compared to adults. Therefore, a significant amount of contaminants plus a lower immune system means children will be more likely to develop respiratory issues related to air pollution. Thus, air pollution impacts the growth and development of children.
Decreases life expectancy
The WHO report — Air Pollution and Child Health: Prescribing Clean Air — revealed that the world over around six lakh children died due to air pollution. The problem is much more acute in developing countries like India as compared to the west as approximately 98% of the children breathe air that has higher levels of PM2.5 than that prescribed by the WHO. The Global Burden of Disease report of 2017 found that India loses one child every three minutes due to polluted air. The data from 1990-2017 linked air pollution as the primary reason for lower respiratory tract infection (LRI). The LRI was the second primary reason for child mortality, after neonatal disorder. In the last three decades, more than a crore of children could not live to see their 60th birthday due to LRI.
Studies from around the world have shown the reducing air pollution has a positive impact on children. The Southern California study found that reducing pollution improves children’s health. In Switzerland, particle pollution dropped in the 1990s due to a series of steps taken by the government. Researchers found that during the years with less pollution, the children had fewer episodes of air quality-related diseases like chronic cough, bronchitis, common cold, etc. Therefore, cleaning air does improve children’s health and well being.
Air pollution has far-ranging impact, be it health, productivity, quality of life, city image, etc. If these are not compelling arguments for action, then we should act for the sake of our children. Else, we will take away their fundamental right – the right to breathe.
Amit Bhatt is the director- integrated transport, WRI India. First published in Hindustan Times