Air Pollution – Death by a Thousand Coughs

According to a recent report by World Health Organisation (WHO) on the world’s deadliest air pollutants and polluting countries, China outruns all the other countries with over one million people dying every year due to the presence of huge amount of pollutants in the breeze. Following China are India and Russia with around 600,000 and 140,000 deaths respectively. Let us look at different aspects of the pollution problem.

The Most Populous Countries – China and India

The key sources of pollution are slightly different in each nation. In China, the dominant factor is particle emissions from coal burning, which alone is responsible for approximately 45%-50% of the deaths every year. Recently, the Chinese authorities issued an alarming citywide health warning in Beijing. Residents were advised to wear masks and avoid any strenuous exercise, while many schools and industrial operations were shut down. But these measures have only temporary benefits. In a country where industrialisation is the very basic need for a living, it won’t be easy to get and maintain quality air to breathe.

In India, the attention catching problem is the practice of burning wood, dung, crop residues and other materials for cooking and heating. There have been several measures undertaken in the recent years. For instance, odd-even number plate scheme was introduced in Delhi earlier this year but it hadn’t been of much help. Cutting down on the number of cars on roads doesn’t really seem like a very concrete plan as there are vast coal-fired power stations that supply electricity to Delhi’s huge population. The fires of litter and cow dung and then the stubble burning in the fields around the capital also add to the problem.

The Focal Point of Pollution – Cities

About 80% of all cities have worse air quality than what’s considered as acceptable air pollution levels. Between 2008 and 2013, global urban air pollution levels rose by 8% and more than 8 million people worldwide are dying prematurely every year as a result of air pollution. The latest urban air quality data, collected between 2011 and 2015, reveals that 98% of cities with over 100,000 inhabitants in low and middle income countries do not meet WHO air quality guidelines.

The world has seen a sharp rise in the number of old, dirty diesel and petrol vehicles on the road over the last decade and pollution testing is virtually non-existent. Low quality fuels available in the market cause quick damage to the catalytic converters of vehicles. And when the converters are removed instead of being replaced, they cause even higher emissions of toxic pollutants.

Traffic management is another problematic situation in many cities across the globe. Traffic jams happen quite often leading to a very high emission of toxic substances that ultimately pollute the air.

Manufacturing and Agricultural Sectors

The industrial and the agricultural sector also contribute to the problem. Manufacturing industries release large amount of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, organic compounds, and chemicals into the air thereby depleting the quality of air. In agricultural sector, use of insecticides, pesticides and fertilizers is a very common practice, which causes emission of ammonia into the air over a substantial period of time resulting in degradation of air quality. In addition, landfills generate methane, which is not only a major greenhouse gas, but also an asphyxiant, which is highly flammable and potentially hazardous if a landfills grow unchecked.

Natural Disasters

Most of the air pollution comes from cars, coal-fired plants and waste burning but not all of it is created by humans. Natural phenomenon and disasters such as dust storms in places close to deserts; smoke and carbon monoxide from wildfires; sulfur, chlorine and ash produced via volcanic activities; and methane emitted at the time of digestion of food by animals also contribute to air pollution.

Health Hazards Due to Pollution

As urban air quality declines, the risk of stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and chronic and acute respiratory diseases, including asthma, increases for the people who live in them. Even though China has targets to restrict coal combustion and emissions in the future, it may struggle to bring down the number of deaths because it has an aging population and these citizens are naturally more prone to the illnesses associated with poor air quality. Furthermore, looking at the broad economic trends in India, the country runs the risk of having even poorer air quality in the future.

Solutions to Pollution Problem

As countries get richer, they tend to invest in clean-up technologies that improve air quality. Investing in improved versions of anything costs a lot. Government should start providing subsidies for the basic needs which would ultimately be beneficial for the health of the country. Moreover, spreading awareness about the ill effects of burning woods, improper use of automobiles, unconscious waste burning etc. should be prioritised. There is an eco-friendly alternative for everything. What we lack are strict and binding policies that ensure the use of those alternatives.

Ultimately, if we don’t make any effort at individual level all the strategies and policies would go in vain. What we should not forget is that we can’t live without the mother nature and the earth, but the planet can live without us.

– Contributed by Riddhi, a Student of Bachelor of Commerce (Hons)

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