Out of breath: Population boom and its impact on air pollution

WION Web Team
New Delhi, India Updated: Feb 11, 2022, 04:41 PM(IST)

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that globally, around 7 million people die every year from indoor and outdoor air pollution. Around 92 per cent of the world's population breathes air with high levels of pollutants exceeding WHO guidelines. Photograph:( Others )

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Nearly 6,00,000 children globally died from acute lower respiratory infections caused by air pollution in 2016, according to a WHO report. The World Health Organization reports that 93 per cent of children worldwide under the age of 15 breathe in air that is so toxic that it severely impacts their health

Air is important for the survival of all beings. The quality of life we live depends a great deal on the quality of the air we breathe in; while we can survive days without food or water, we cannot survive for more than a few minutes without air. 

However, air pollution has become one of the largest threats to environmental and human health, making access to clean air a global issue.

A rapid increase in the human population, industrialisation, deforestation, economic growth, and vehicular emissions have been attributed as major drivers for the continuous deterioration of air quality.

The ever-growing global population accelerates greenhouse gas emissions, resulting in a negative impact on air quality. 

Also read | Opinion | Air pollution and child health: Time to act is now!

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that globally, around 7 million people die every year from indoor and outdoor air pollution. Around 92 per cent of the world's population breathes air with high levels of pollutants exceeding WHO guidelines.

Effects of air pollution on human health are serious. Diseases like asthma, lung cancer, pulmonary illnesses, and heart diseases can all be associated with air pollution and the poor air quality we inhale.

Pollution and Children

Children, however, are most vulnerable to the adverse effects of air pollution due to their developing lungs and their high activity levels. 

Nearly 6,00,000 children globally died from acute lower respiratory infections caused by air pollution in 2016, according to a WHO report. The World Health Organization reports that 93 per cent of children worldwide under the age of 15 breathe in air that is so toxic that it severely impacts their health.

There is some evidence that polluted air can even harm a baby while they are still in the womb. As a result of air pollution exposure during pregnancy, children can be born with defects in the respiratory system, and brain and spinal defects as well.

Air pollution in India

By 2027, India will overtake China as the most populous country with almost 1.39 billion people. The impact of the country's growing population on air quality is evident, the country is ranked third on the global pollution index. 

India has 22 of the 30 most polluted cities in the world according to the 'World Air Report, 2020'; Delhi tops the list. With so much smog covering Delhi, curbing air pollution has proven to be a challenge. 

Also read | New Delhi's indoor air pollution levels worse than outdoors, experts warn

The latest statistics from the System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research (SAFAR) indicate that the levels of Particulate Matter 10 (PM 10) and Particulate Matter 2.5 (PM 2.5) have reached 876 and 680 micrograms per cubic metres, compared to the safe limits of 100 and 60 micrograms per cubic metres respectively. 

Emissions from vehicles, industries, and power plants, dust from heavy constructions, increased deforestation, waste burning, and seasonal activities like stubble burning during harvest seasons and Diwali fireworks are the major drivers of the poor air quality in the National Capital Region.

Delhi's hazardous air pollution puts children at greater risk of developing diseases at a very young age. A recent health survey conducted by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) on 413 children aged between 14 years to 17 years in the city suggests that 75 per cent of the children complained about breathlessness, 24.2per cent of children face issues of itchy eyes, 22.3per cent of children complained about runny nose and sneezing, and 20.9 per cent of children complained about coughing in the morning. 

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in the country just adds to the ill effects of polluted air. According to a Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health report from 2020, people living in highly polluted cities are more likely to suffer respiratory and heart diseases and to develop COVID-19 symptoms.

In November, the Air Quality Index of Delhi remained in a severe category and as per the System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research (SAFAR), stubble burning contributed 36 per cent to the city’s air pollution this year. 

Delhi's increased migration of people just adds to the city's already growing population, resulting in more construction, industries, and energy production, as well as more vehicular emissions.

Authorities have taken numerous steps to curb air pollution and improve the quality of air in the country, such as the odd-even traffic rationing scheme, the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojna for cleaner fuels, or the use of Compressed Natural Gas as an alternate fuel for vehicles.

However, considering the alarming levels of PM 2.5 and PM 10, clearly, these measures are failing to tackle the crisis.

Watch | Mission Sustainability: The right to breathe clean air

Battle against air pollution

The poorest air quality is often found in cities with high population densities - population density plays a large role in air pollution. The most basic solution to air pollution is to replace fossil fuels with alternative energies such as solar and wind power.

However, it is equally imperative to reduce our energy consumption - this can be accomplished by adopting more responsible habits, including sustainable farming practices to prevent the burning of stubble and stabilising human population growth.

Air pollution is a silent killer, but it can be curbed with a strong commitment and effective planning.
 

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