Even as Delhi is showing serious intent to curb air pollution with the odd-even scheme, the air quality readings are still almost 19 times and eight times above the prescribed limit – children being the highest at risk. According to experts approximately 22 lakh school children in the national capital are growing up with irreversible lung damage. Anumita Roychowdhury, Executive Director, Research and Advocacy at Centre for Science and Environment tells us why we need to make children’s health the driver of public opinion and public policy when it comes to air pollution.
1. What kind of pollutants effect children’s health most severely?
The air that children in Delhi breathe is dangerously toxic. According to a World Health Organisation study published in 2014, levels of fine particulates with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less, or PM 2.5, exceeded the WHO standard by 15 times. To give a better picture of how tiny these particulates are we should know that one single strand of hair is also around 50 microns. So you can imagine that it is virtually impossible to even see PM 2.5. Particulate matter is spewed into the air due to human activities like vehicular traffic, trash burning, and construction activity. The other kind of most dangerous pollutants are toxic gases like nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO), sulphur dioxide(SO2) which are emitted by industrial units. In many cases the particulate matter combines with these gases and then it becomes a lethal cocktail which is extremely harmful for everybody, particularly children.
2. Why are children the most vulnerable to air pollution?
You see, it is very simple and yet we seem to be blind to it. Children are at a greater risk because their organs are still growing, their lungs are still developing. Additionally, most children live a more active life than adults, they play, they jump around and as a result their intake of air is much more than us. This is why our children are more susceptible to the effects of toxic air. When they breathe this air, the toxic particulate matter enters their bloodstream causing serious lung problems because these particulates embed themselves deep inside children’s developing lungs. When they inhale air loaded with carcinogens they can even get cancer later in life.
3. How severely are Delhi’s children affected by the air pollution?
It is a catastrophe! In an unprecedented study by the Kolkata-based Chittaranjan National Cancer Institute (CNCI), which tracked 11,000 school children in Delhi for three years, it was found that key indicators of respiratory health, lung function to palpitation, vision to blood pressure of children in Delhi, between 4 and 17 years of age, were worse off than their counterparts elsewhere — the figures were twice to four times as bad. It’s not just the CNCI study that has red-flagged this danger. Another study by the World Allergy Organisation Journal in 2013, reported high respiratory disorder symptoms among students living in Chandni Chowk (66%) in North Delhi, Mayapuri (59%) in West Delhi and Sarojini Nagar (46%) in South Delhi. Basically, our children are breathing extremely toxic air and are developing illnesses at a very young age. Our report, Body Burden 2015, also quotes Dr Sanjeev Bagai, Nephron Clinic, as saying, “The number of people with respiratory problem has increased by 10-15 per cent in the last decade. Adolescents who had never wheezed as children are wheezing now. Children born healthy are coming back to us in four to six weeks with wheezing.” And we must remember that the impairments in lung function at the age of 17 years found in a large number of school children of Delhi will not be reversed even when they complete the transition into adulthood.
4. Among children who is most at risk?
All children are at equal risk, but at the same time children from poor families are much more vulnerable to diseases caused by pollution. Firstly, not only do they face outdoor pollution which is of course toxic, but often their families cannot afford clean fuels and use wood-stoves to cook. This indoor pollution is also very harmful. To give you a sense, one hour of burning a wood-stove produces toxins worth 400 cigarettes! Often these children are also malnourished, have low immunity, high susceptibility to disease and live in extremely unhygienic conditions. Infants in such conditions are especially prone to falling ill because of toxins entering their bloodstreams and in some cases it can even kill them. But all children are at risk because their intake of air is much more than adults.
5. What needs to be done to reduce air pollution?
A lot. And the odd-even rule is only one step in that direction. We welcome it and urge the government to make children’s health the driver of public policy when it comes to combating pollution. We live in a world where we know that climate change is causing new weather patterns and the mean sea temperature is rising. We know that India and its cities are also being affected by it. Today, Delhi has gained worldwide notoriety for being the most polluted city in the world after Beijing and it is a serious concern that there are still some people who are living in denial about the harmful effects of air pollution. This problem cannot be tackled by government alone. As a society we need to take hard decisions for the sake of our children’s health and future well-being. We should build pressure on the government to cut the subsidies given to vehicles instead of supporting them, we should move to Euro VI emission standards immediately and we should cooperate when the government implements rules like odd-even. Do you know that by moving to a CNG car from a diesel car we reduce our personal carbon footprint by 40%? It is going to take both public awareness and a conscious effort to reduce pollution from all sources including industry and vehicles. Meanwhile, some steps that parents can take are ensuring that children don’t play on days when the pollution is too much, or on smoggy days due to winter. Children who have an existing breathing issue should be monitored. Parents should also monitor the quality of air in their homes and take steps to improve it. This is a collective challenge and we all need to work together to improve the air we and our children breathe.