Air Pollution- A Silent killer running Amok !

Air Pollution is the single largest risk to our health, threatening to assume draconic proportions and raining death all around! New studies reveal that air pollution causes cardiovascular diseases including angina, ischemic heart disease and strokes apart from causing respiratory disorders and obstructive pulmonary diseases. Both indoor and outdoor air pollution are responsible for these health issues.

The new study links beyond doubt cancer to air pollution as well.

Air pollution is the introduction of particulates, biological molecules, or other harmful materials into Earth’s atmosphere. Air pollutants can be classified mainly into primary pollutants which have a direct impact on the atmosphere such as carbon emissions or sulphur dioxide emissions from industrial smoke. Secondary pollutants are caused by the chemical reactions of the primary pollutants, for example to smog we see in our cities.

Outdoor air pollution is increasing as a result of the inefficient combustion of fuels for transport, power generation and other factors such as home heating and cooking. Combustion processes produce a complex mixture of pollutants that comprises of diesel soot particles and the lethal killer, Lead.

Urban outdoor air pollution is estimated to cause 1.3 million deaths worldwide per year.

Some main sources of pollution are burning of fossil fuel (Petroleum, wood, dung, oil stoves etc) which emits pollutants such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides. Carbon emission is linked with the process of incomplete burning of fossil fuel.

Other contributors are agricultural activities, industrial activities, mining operations and all emissions coming from domestic and indoor sources.

Pollution in cities is measured in terms of Suspended Particulate Matter in the air commonly known as SPM.

The pollution is further depleting the Ozone layer which is necessary for the ecosystem of the earth, which due to the gaseous imbalance lets in more sun light and heat, warming up temperatures world wide and what we term as Global Warming. Over the last 100 years, large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are being released into the atmosphere. The majority of greenhouse gases come from burning fossil fuels to produce energy, although deforestation, industrial processes, and some agricultural practices also emit gases into the atmosphere. These Greenhouse gases act like a cover around our planet, trapping energy in the atmosphere and causing it to warm. This phenomenon is called the greenhouse effect and is natural and necessary to support life on Earth. However, the cumulative and excessive percentage of these gases in the atmosphere can change the Earth’s climate and result in dangerous effects to human health and welfare including the ecosystem.

Premature melting of ice regions, increased sea water levels, loss of submarine life and changes in world climate in both intensity and frequency are the outcomes which are clearly visible.

Pollution is trapping us in our own backyard of technology and science, the hallmarks of the modern human race. We built it to facilitate us, satiate our ever increasing appetites for everything and truly demonstrating consumerism in all aspects of life. However a whole gamut of fallouts, consequences was never thought of, planners and the think tanks never had the foresight to build an appropriate structure of checks and balances. Some developed nations have just run away with the “the first one, the preferred one” advantage and have developed at the cost of polluting the whole atmosphere, having realised the perils of pollution and outsourcing manufacturing or processes which are polluting, twisting the global economies with their money power and clout. Now the developing ones although have woken up but still do not seem to be too concerned or atleast convey the impression of being hand tied. Most actions taken are out of compulsion and international pressure and the approach remains far too slow, lacking will.

On 25.03.2014 WHO declared that 7 million died in 2012 of air pollution caused problems. Approximately 15 deaths of every 100 were from air pollution related causes. This places the air pollution factor as the biggest environmental risk to health.

The report released by WHO has estimates which have been scientifically and logically driven and extrapolated on data received from satellites, findings of all ground level based institutions and region wise, country wise emission values and predictor analysis of pollution drifts mapped with existing natural air currents. The researchers have technology at their command which gives them better insights of regions, demographically and even rural and urban splits.

In 2012, regional analysis revealed low and middle-income countries in the WHO South-East Asia and Western Pacific Regions having the largest air pollution-related burden , with a total of 3.3 million deaths linked to indoor air pollution and 2.6 million deaths related to outdoor air pollution.

The findings of the WHO report show that outdoor pollution related total death count broken up reads as – 40% ischemic heart disease and 40% stroke vis a vis indoor pollution 34% stroke and 26% ischemic heart disease. Respiratory/pulmonary disorders in both remain between 10% to 11%.

We can safely say that Air Pollution is a major reason of cardiac events and causes Heart disease. The Particulate Matter is responsible for thickening the walls of the carotid artery, thereby increasing the chances of a myocardial infarction or stroke. The walls get thickened due to the deposit of particulate matter which is extremely tiny such as the PM1 which has the capability to pierce the blood stream and attach itself to free radicals in the blood and form plaque on the artery walls causing it to harden and thicken.

The American Heart Association mentions modern cardio vascular studies that suggest the possible links between acute and/or chronic exposure to Particulate Matter and cardiovascular events. It may be related to increases in heart rate and blood pressure, fibrinogen, and blood coagulation factors; arterial vasoconstriction; inflammatory mediators (eg, C-reactive protein [CRP]); endothelial injury/dysfunction; and reduction in heart rate variability (HRV). Resultants may include myocardial ischemia (significant ST-segment depression during exercise testing, angina pectoris, or both), malignant ventricular arrhythmias, increased plaque accumulation and vulnerability, and increased possibility for acute thrombosis triggering acute coronary syndromes and cardiac events.

According to Dr Maria Neira, Director, WHO’s Department for Public Health, “ The risks from air pollution are now far greater than previously thought or understood, particularly for heart disease and strokes.”

According to Dr Carlos Dora, WHO Coordinator for Public Health, “Excessive air pollution is often a by-product of unsustainable policies in sectors such as transport, energy, waste management and industry. In most cases, healthier strategies will also be more economical in the long term due to health-care cost savings as well as climate gains.”

The Chinese context – A total of 16 of the world’s top 20 most polluted cities are in china. No. 1 on the World Bank list is Linfen City in Shanxi Province, China which is known for it’s coal industry. Lead poisoning was described in a 2001 paper as one of the most common paediatric health problems in China. 30% children are reported to have excessive lead levels in their blood. A Green Peace campaigner Mr. Zhang Kai for East Asia reported improvement over last year in certain cities of China such as Beijing. However he said “this is the only silver lining in a situation where 90% of cities still record levels of pollution that far exceed China’s own air quality standards.” China is also trending towards frequent Industrial explosions, killing many on the spur of the incident and releasing pollutants in the atmosphere in abundance.

A Chinese watchdog group, released names of top polluted cities in China which includes Yangquan,Datong, Shizuishan in Ningxia Hui, Sanmenxia in Henan Province, Jinchang in Gansu Province, Shijiazhuang in Hebei Province, Xianyang in Shaanxi Province, Zhuzhou in Hunan Province and Luoyang in Henan Province

Beijing stood 28th on ranking within China. Recently in the news for being one of the top most polluted cities in the world Beijing is atleast showing some signs of recovery and is slightly better off than New Delhi atleast. In Beijing, PM 10 levels decreased about 40 per cent from 2000 to 2013; in Delhi this has increased about 47 per cent from 2000 to 2011.

The US context – The clean Air act has shown significant reduction across the board for major six pollutants. carbon monoxide pollution in the US reduced by went down by 51% for the period 2000 to 2010. For the same period Ground Level Ozone dropped 11%. Lead levels in air dropped by 89% from 1980 to 2010, Nitrogen dioxide by 52% and sulphur dioxide by 83%. The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1970 and 1977 authorized the regulatory Environmental Protection Agency more teeth to enforce stricter emission norms all across and results have been encouraging. The US is also engaged in finding long term solutions to the problem of emissions, researching ways and means to replace the internal combustion engine.

The European Union Context – For the period 1990 to 2013 reductions in emissions of almost all air pollutants has been reported. The largest fall was in sulphur oxides by 86.7 %, non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs) 60 %. Nitrous oxides (NOx) 53.5 %with ammonia  emissions falling by  27 % .

London- Nearly 9500 people have died in a single year in 2010, due to air pollution effects in London because of high levels of PM 2.5  and Nitrogen dioxide, a bye product of emission from diesel engines. In January 2015 NO2 levels in Oxford Street had exceeded the legal limit for the whole of 2015 in the space of just four days – while the limit was also breached in Putney High Street a day later.

However some of the counter measures taken by the UK Authorities include stricter Emission Zone standards, the delivery of more than 1,300 hybrid buses and capping of taxi age. The Mayor’s office in London also released plan for Ultra Low Emission Zone in London from 2020.


The Indian contextNew Delhi-The Times Of India recently quoted a recent research study revealing that in Delhi the most lethal ultrafine particulate matter or PM1 had high levels even in lowest pollution pre monsoon season and that too in the perceived cleaner and posh parts of the city. PM1 is the smallest of all particles. It is 2.5 times smaller than PM 2.5, which is 30 times smaller than a human hair width. The PM1 particles are so small and weightless that now for vehicles with Euro 5 fuel standard, the emission is being measured are in number of pollution particles as against the weight of particles.

PM1 levels are 35% to 50% higher than PM 2.5 levels in Delhi which is alarming since PM 2.5  levels are as it is skyrocketing in Delhi. Delhi is has earned the dubious distinction of being the world’s most polluted city, singled out of 1600 cities mapped worldwide.

PM1 can easily penetrate deep within the lungs and blood stream. PM1 causes cardio vascular disease. T K Joshi, director of Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health (COEH) says “Since they get diffused with the blood, new research strongly suggests they can travel to the brain and cause strokes.”


The National Green Tribunal has recently intervened in the face of inaction by the Delhi Government and issued a slew of directions to governments in NCR, most of which, although are yet to be implemented. It is heartening to see the NGT reviewing banning of old vehicles, diesel vehicles etc and even going to the extent of asking the manufacturers of cluster buses being used in Delhi for public transport as to why their models make so much noise.

Overall recommendations made by various institutions are gathering dust and the Delhi Government is still mulling over what to do and itching to pin it on the central Government for having done nothing either by releasing statements such as “it should not be the responsibilities of the state governments only to counter pollution. Centre needs to pitch in too.”Blame game is on and it is as murky as the Delhi smog.


Other parts of India fare no better. In India, more than half of the monitored cities have above-average or critical levels of particulate matter pollution below 10 micrometers. Future trending by any available technique is spelling impending disaster.


Steps taken by Government of India to curb air pollution include implementation of the Bharat stage-IV emission norms in 13 large cities including NCR for new 4-wheelers from 2010. Mass emission standards (Bharat Stage III) as a country wide notification defined for two, three wheelers and diesel driven agricultural tractors from April 1, 2010 throughout the country alongwith strict norms for in use vehicles in 2004. Usage of CNG vehicles for mass transport in cities such as Delhi. The Government also introduced alternate public transport systems such as the Delhi Metro and similarly trying to replicate in some other cities such as Jaipur, lucknow etc. Standards  have been developed for Oxides of Nitrogen (NOx), Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) and load based standards for particulate matter (PM) including revision of PM emission standard for the cement industry.


However In India the Agencies monitoring the environment and implementing standards and norms to follow and creating awareness are slow in response and seem to be debating possibilities more than imposing a few and implementing them on a war footing. Decisions have to go through red tape and recommendations being implemented on the ground with alacrity are not happening. The problem seems to be set for compounding further by all the ambitious economic growth projects the current government is embarking upon without developing any meaningful pollution control protocol.


The framework of controlling measures falls far short of the scale and speed at which pollution is increasing, both in terms of oversight as well as in recognition of the gravity of the issue. Actions proposed or taken till now do not justify the intent.


The metro city public however has started viewing Environment pollution in India more seriously. In a survey conducted and statistics released by PEW research centre on how Indians feel about sensitive and critical issues, 74% of the respondents displayed extreme concern on air pollution in 2015 as against 52% in 2014. 73% were very concerned on global warming too.

The shift in attitude towards pollution problem also stems from the fact that Delhi residents and public have been in International and domestic platforms both with a spew of articles and readings on Delhi’s air quality woes. Nicholas Dawes, an editor at The Hindustan Times, said the media coverage was just one reason for the attitude shift. “I think the people of Delhi are increasingly unwilling to tolerate tough circumstances,” he said.  Dr. Joshua S. Apte, an assistant professor of environmental engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, studying Delhi’s air pollution since 2007, said recognition was a start. “The thing that gives me greatest hope is the huge increase in awareness that I’ve seen in Delhi just in the past year.”

However, by and large the problem of Pollution at ground level still lies in the annals of “read about it, feel about it  and let someone else act on it.”

As Pink Floyd puts it “Your lips move but I can’t hear what you saying. Oh I have become comfortably numb.”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Shopping Cart