Indians have the poorest lung function and the highest number of deaths from chronic lung diseases in the world. Doctors blame this occurrence on poor air quality.
Dr. Sundeep Salvi, a pulmonologist and director of the Chest Research Foundation in Pune, who has been studying lung functions across rural and urban India, has pointed out that “the lungs of Indians have been found to be 30 per cent weaker than that of Europeans and Americans”.
Rising cases of the chronic pulmonary disease, including the largest number of asthma cases in the world, are being directly attributed to rising levels of air pollution though he did not rule out Indian genes also.
Dr. Salvi blamed the heavy increase of vehicular traffic for plunging health levels. “In 1951, India had three million vehicles. By 1997, the number had gone up to 37.2 million, and in 2012, it increased to 100 million motor vehicles.”
Diesel vehicles produce 1,500 times more particulate matter which goes deep into the lungs, he warned.
A substantial rise in cardiovascular diseases, strokes and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases in India in 2010 are directly attributed to rising levels of particulate matter pollution.
A study of 16,000 children in Nagpur and Pune found that the risk of developing asthma increased by two-and-a-half times if they lived closer to the main road. The risk of asthma increased four times for infants living in proximity to main roads.
Releasing India-specific data, the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) warned that outdoor air pollution caused 627,000 deaths and 17.7 million healthy years of life lost in 2010.
Worldwide, outdoor air pollution caused 3.2 million premature deaths and over 74 million years of healthy life lost in 2010.
Dr. Vinod Raina, former head of the oncology wing at AIIMS, confirmed that “we are getting 10 lakh new cancer cases every year, out of which approximately one lakh are lung cancer cases. We still have to quantify how many of these lung cancer cases are pollution-related”.
Reinforcing these observations. Dr. Aaron Cohen, principal scientist, Health Effects Institute, Boston, and chair of the Air Pollution Group at Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation for Global Burden of Disease, pointed out that a study of lung cancer amongst non-smokers had shown a 60 per cent increase caused by air pollution.
These concerns have been reinforced by the World Health Organisation report released in 2016, which warned that inhabitants of large cities in low and middle-income countries face excessively high air pollution. This is ‘wreaking havoc on human health’ and causing more than 3 million premature deaths each year.
The WHO has collated evidence to show that presently more than four in five urban dwellers worldwide live in cities that don’t meet WHO air quality guidelines with 98 per cent of these inhabitants living in poorer countries including India.
The findings are part of WHO’s third Global Urban Ambient Air Pollution Database, which examines outdoor air in 3,000 cities across 103 countries. It is based on country reports and other sources. Already, urban air pollution levels have risen eight per cent between 2008 and 2013.
The national capital of New Delhi, till two years ago topping the list of most polluted cities in the world, has now dropped to No. 9 position after it managed to decrease its annual average concentration of particulate matter by about 20 per cent from 2014 to 2015. But Gwalior, Allahabad, Patna and Raipur presently rank as the world’s second, third, fourth and fifth most polluted cities in the world.
WHO has repeatedly warned that ambient air pollution, made of high concentrations of small and fine particulate matter, has emerged as the greatest killer and has to be combated on a war scale.