World Environment Day: Why the life-breath that is choking us matters

The quality of the air we breathe depends on the lifestyle choices we make every day. And this is only worsening.

 |  6-minute read |   05-06-2019
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Growing up as a millennial in the metropolitan capital of India, clean air, pure water and a clear sky are something we could never take for granted. It used to be a luxury to be experienced on holidays in the hills or in remote villages where extended families stayed and one visited for vacations.

On World Environment Day (observed every year on June 5 since 1974), it is important for us to take a look at the quality of life that we are cursed with.

Especially the air we breathe as the United Nations has announced this year's Environment Day theme as air pollution. 

The life-breath that chokes us to death

As someone who grew up in a city that ranks among having the worst air quality in the world, air pollution has been a touchy topic with me. More so, because I suffered from chronic bronchitis from a very young age. While it was attributed to my weak lungs in my teenage years, I realised there was not a trace of an asthma attack from the day I shifted to another city with much cleaner air.

The choking demon resurfaced when I returned to my city of birth after a gap of seven years.

Air pollution is all around us — indoors, outdoors, in cities, in the countryside, even with an air-purifier installed. It affects us — whether we realise it or not, whether we accept it or live in denial. For the longest time, we have taken the air we breathe for granted. It was a privilege that we enjoyed, and are now effectively depriving our future generations of.

main_air-pollution-r_060519023116.jpgDeadly Dishes: The main source of household air pollution is the indoor burning of biomass-based fuels to cook. (Representational image: PTI)

Recent research sheds light on worrisome aspects of what the air around us really contains, and how it affects our bodies. Without air, there can be no life, but breathing polluted air dooms us to an early death and raises a generation that lives a life of ailments.

There is enough and more research to establish that air pollution is a global public health emergency threatening everyone — from unborn babies to children, commuters to women cooking over open fires, to even those who stay indoors all day to escape it.

While the sources of air pollution can be very different varying from region to region, the effects are just as deadly.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates around 7 million premature deaths every year attributable to air pollution.

To put this in perspective, it amounts to 800 deaths every hour — or a staggering 13 deaths every minute. 

According to the State of Global Air 2019 report published by Health Effects Institute (HEI), exposure to air pollution (both outdoor and indoor) has contributed to over 1.2 million deaths in India in 2017 alone. Medical journal The Lancet establishes that an average of two people die in India every day due to air pollution. Air pollution is reportedly responsible for more deaths than many other risk factors, including malnutrition, alcohol abuse and physical inactivity.

The generations in peril

Globally, 93% of all children breathe air that contains higher concentrations of pollutants than what the WHO considers safe to human health — 6,00,000 children die prematurely each year because of air pollution.

In India alone, air pollution has been responsible for the deaths of over one lakh children under five years of age and over 7,000 children between ages 5-14, due to both ambient and household pollution, according to the WHO report — Air pollution and child health: Prescribing clean air.

children-airpollutio_060519020814.jpgNo Small Danger: Being shorter than adults, children are more affected by ground-level pollution from exhaust fumes. (Representational photo: UN Environment)

As if that were not enough, exposure to dirty air also harms brain development, leading to cognitive and motor impairments, while at the same time, putting children at greater risk for chronic diseases later in life. About 60% of household air pollution-related deaths globally are among women and children, and more than half of all pneumonia deaths in children under five can be attributed to indoor air pollution.

Pollution and poverty

Air pollution goes to the heart of social justice and global inequality — disproportionately affecting poor people. About three billion people globally depend on burning solid fuels or kerosene to meet household energy needs and 3.8 million of them die each year from exposure to these pollutants.

Crowded cities and trafficked suburbs are hotspots for outdoor air pollution. According to the World Health Organization, 97% of cities in low- and middle-income countries with more than 100,000 inhabitants do not meet the minimum air quality levels. 

main_air-pollution_p_060519022620.jpgPollution Bites The Poor: WHO says nearly 58% of deaths caused by pollution globally are in developing and under-developed countries. (Representational photo: PTI)

Further, the economic loss due to air pollution costs the global economy more than USD five trillion every year in welfare costs and USD 225 billion in lost income, according to the World Bank. A 2016 study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development predicts that, if the situation remains unchanged, by 2060, the annual global welfare costs of premature deaths from outdoor air pollution would be USD 18-25 trillion, with the costs of pain and suffering from illness estimated at around USD 2.2 trillion.

Ground-level ozone is expected to reduce staple crop yields by 26% by 2030, creating food security and nutrition challenges.

‘Right to a clean and healthy environment’ is a fundamental right in India. The scope of Article 21 of the constitution — that provides for the right to life and personal liberty — has been broadened to accommodate the right to a clean environment as fundamental to life, upheld as a fundamental right by the Supreme Court.  

With the rights come the responsibility to ensure that the environment and the planet are preserved for generations to come.

As the American philosopher and poet Henry David Thoreau said, "What is the use of a house if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on?"

Clean air is your right — and responsibility.

Also read: Want to continue living in Delhi? Then stop breathing!


Rajeshwari Ganesan Rajeshwari Ganesan @rajeshwaridotg

Assistant Editor, DailyO

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