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The Silent Killer: On #WorldHealthDay Here’s A Look At Five Health Risks Posed By Air Pollution

Air pollution is the cause of over one-third deaths from stroke, lung disease/cancer, heart diseases, respiratory infections and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases across the globe: WHO

Dust Pollution Triggers Breathing Issues In Healthy People, Worsens Plight Of Asthma Patients
  • 47 million children under age of 5 in India reside in most polluted areas
  • 2.5 million people die early because of air pollution: Report
  • Women inhaling household fumes are at a 40% higher risk of a stroke

Mumbai: Remember the infamous cricket test match played between India and Sri Lanka, in December last year, when the match had to be halted for 26 minutes after the Sri Lankan players fell short of breath due to poor air quality? Several Sri Lankan players were spotted wearing pollution masks while fielding. The umpires had to declare a break on the second day of the third Test cricket as the players coughed, fell short of breathes and bowlers from both sides were seen vomiting on the ground. After a 20-minute break, the game resumed only to be stopped after 10 minutes as one of the players again left the pitch for a medical check-up, forcing the Indian skipper Virat Kohli to declare innings.

Also Read: India Incurred $55.39 Billion Worth Of Losses In Terms Of Labour Output Caused By Air Pollution In 2013

The incident that took place for the first time in the game’s 140-year history drove home a crucial message of how lack of clean air can be unsafe for not just sportsmen involved in strenuous physical activity but even for others who may go for regular morning walks, but particularly vulnerable are children. It is alarming to note that 47 million children under the age of five in India reside in most polluted areas, as per a Green Peace report.

The newborns are starting their lives as ‘smokers’ consuming toxic air from day one, as are the others. Their immune system is very low and their wind pipes are not properly developed. Breathing an air with a PM2.5 level of 1000 would be equivalent to smoking about 50 cigarettes, says Dr Arvind Kumar, a lung surgeon at the Sir Ganga Ram Hospital (SGRH) in light of the health emergency that was declared in the capital city of India last November.

Also Read: Delhi’s ‘Green’ Budget:  Government Introduces 26-Point Programme To Fight Against Air Pollution

According to The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health report, India fared  the worst in the world, with 2.5 million people dying early because of pollution, followed by China with 1.8 million deaths. The World Health Organisation (WHO) points out that air pollution is the cause of over one-third deaths from stroke, lung disease/cancer, heart diseases, respiratory infections and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases globally.

Diseases that are worst affected by air pollution including cardiovascular diseases, chronic respiratory diseases (COPD), and cancers have shown a dramatic increase since 1990. In 1990, COPD was ranked 13 among leading causes of illness and lost life years. But this has now shot up to rank 3. Similarly, Ischaemic heart disease that greatly influenced by air pollution has gone up from rank 5 to number 1; and diabetes from rank 22 to rank 5 and stroke from rank 16 to rank 15, points out a report, analysed for Delhi by Centre for Science and Environment.

Here are some of the ailments on the rise because of air pollution:

Acute Respiratory Infections

When it comes to Acute Respiratory Infections (ARI), the number cases have jumped from 32.76 million in 2013 to 40.3 million in 2016, according to Union Environment Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan. With 822 deaths, Uttar Pradesh tops the ARI list followed by West Bengal with 635 deaths and Delhi with 207 deaths. Experts point out that cases of ARI are likely to be high in areas with particle pollution, especially PM10 or particles with diameter less than 10 micrometers.

Also Read: Has Any Study Been Conducted On Impact Of Air Pollution On People’s Health? Supreme Court Asks Centre

Lung Diseases/Cancer

Thirty times smaller than the width of a human hair is the size of the Particulate Matter (PM) 2.5 pollutant, which makes it dangerous for the human body as it is fine enough to pass throat’s natural barriers and enter the lungs and the bloodstream. Hence, it is no surprise that air pollution can cause serious damage to lung development and poses an additional risk of developing into lung diseases going forward in life.

Long-term exposure to polluted air can have permanent health effects like accelerated aging of the lungs, decreased lung function and loss of lung capacity which can take a toll on the function of converting of clean air into energy. In other words breathing gets affected. It can also lead to development of chronic bronchitis or chronic obstructive lung disease, says Polash Mukerjee, Research Associate (Clean Air and Sustainable Mobility) at Centre for Science and Environment.

A study by the department of pulmonary medicine at the Vallabhbhai Patel Chest Institute, found that the lung capacity of Indians is 30 per cent lower than North Americans or Europeans, making them highly vulnerable to diabetes, heart attacks or strokes. Mr Mukerjee attributes this air pollution.

Also Read: Air Pollution, Waste Management Continue To Be Areas Of Concern: TERI Report

People with a history of lung infection or lung diseases are at a higher risk of death due to long term exposure to air pollution. As for the short-term exposure of air pollution, it can aggravate lung disease causing asthma attacks and acute bronchitis.


With Delhi undergoing a serious health emergency few months ago, many health experts warned that continuous exposure to polluted air has the potential to cause a stroke among adults. The worsening quality of air has the capability of damaging inner lining of veins and arteries. Indoor air pollution caused by combustion of solid fuels is equally damaging and can also cause stroke

“Women inhaling the household fumes are at a 40 per cent higher risk of getting a stroke. The reason being the carbon monoxide and particulate matter from burning solid fuels tend to reduce the levels of HDL (high density lipoprotein). This in turn prevents the removal of LDL (low density lipoprotein) from the body leading to hardening of the arteries,” said Jaideep Bansal, head neurologist at Saroj Super Speciality Hospital, Delhi. On an average, the internal air pollution in rural homes in India exceeds the World Health Organisation (WHO) norms by 20 times.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Diseases

Depending on the geographic areas, the causes leading to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Diseases (COPD) vary. While in high- and middle-income countries tobacco smoke is the biggest risk factor, in low-income countries it is the exposure to indoor air pollution. Use of biomass fuels for cooking and heating, causes the COPD burden according to a WHO report. Inflammation, a bodily defense reaction that recognises an invading substasnce in body, is produced due to exposure to pollutants. This inflammatory response often leads to destruction of tissue, or emphysema, thus narrowing the airways.

Also Read: Dia Mirza And Sonam Kapoor Raise Concern Over Mumbai’s Deteriorating Air Quality

Heart Diseases

A group of researchers, from the University of Washington School of Public Health, have now found a strong link between exposure to bad quality air and higher incidence of heart disease. According to their findings lifestyle factors exposure to high levels of air pollution may increase the risk of heart disease by lowering the levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), commonly known as the “good” cholesterol.

Approximately 15% of all deaths due to ischaemic heart disease, accounting for over a million premature deaths annually, can be attributed to exposure to household air pollution, reads a report by WHO.


In India, major causes of air pollution include vehicle emissions, stubble burning, waste burning, dust emissions and industrial pollution. Indoor and outdoor air pollution is increasingly becoming a major cause of death and diseases not only in India but worldwide.

As per a study developed by Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, if India reduces air pollution and brings down its air quality index to WHO’s annual standard of 10 micrograms per cubic metre (ug/m3), then people could live about 4 years longer on average. And residents of the most polluted city Delhi can live up to nine years longer.

Also Read: World Health Day 2018: In Inefficient Management Of Waste Is A Cause of Deadly Diseases

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Prem kumar

    April 13, 2018 at 7:14 pm

    we have designed a instrument named ‘ Mobile Honey bee Dust Catcher” This new innovation can solve the dust problem at large scale in cities and towns also.

    Prem Kumar
    Nature & Life Savers Association,
    Distt. Kullu
    Himachal Pradesh

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