The Right to Safe Air

The air far too many people breathe across the world is depressingly unhealthy in too many places. Overall acute respiratory infections kill some 4.5 million adults and children each year across the globe. Influenza affects 3-5 million people each year and causes an average of 250,000-500,000 deaths. Globally there are an estimated 156 million cases of pneumonia each year, the leading cause of death in children under 5, killing 1.3 million of them in 2011. Tuberculosis caused another 1.4 million deaths in 2011.

These are settings in which people share air–crowded neighborhoods, public transportation, public facilities, health clinics, work places and schools–which are breeding grounds for airborne diseases. The risk is always greater where people with weak health, such as the aged or people with compromised immune systems, come into contact with people who are sick.

Air pollution from tobacco smoke, biomass fuels and car emissions jointly contributes to air quality and airborne infections. Diseases caused by direct/indirect exposure to tobacco smoke kill more than million people (including some 600,000 non-smokers exposed to second-hand smoke) each year, according to the World Health Organization, and account for 1 in 10 of all deaths, making tobacco the single most preventable cause of death in the world today.

The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control states that there is "no safe level of exposure to tobacco smoke." Creating 100 percent smoke-free environments is the only way to protect people from the harmful effects of second-hand tobacco smoke.

Yet many smokers cite solid fuels, automobiles' emissions and industrial effluents as the top culprits for polluting the atmosphere, and not tobacco smoke. But many non-smokers felt that people who smoke should realize the stupendous harm they are doing to themselves, to others and to the environment.

According to many youngsters interviewed in India and abroad, urbanization and consumerism go hand-in-hand with deteriorating ambient air quality. They felt that reliance on fossil fuels by the manufacturing and car industries has contributed to air pollution and that governments need to invest in streamlining public transport to reduce the number of vehicles on the road and in new automobile technologies for hybrid and electric vehicles.

"India is at the bottom of a list of 132 countries when it comes to air quality," said engineer Amitabh Pande, who had been involved in consulting for implementation of Kyoto Protocol related systems in the Asia-Pacific region. "We Indians do not take environmental pollution seriously. Even as more and more countries ban the use of diesel cars for personal use, diesel car sales in India, are touching 1 million per annum, occupying 75 percent market share in the popular car category. Also not many people know that the second largest consumer of diesel in our country after the transport sector, is the telecom sector (which does not even figure in the list of top 10 in most other countries) primarily due to lack of a stable power supply system. Although India ranks third after the US and China in greenhouse gas emissions, I have found the lack of awareness of the Indian bureaucracy on this topic so sickening that I felt ashamed and embarrassed being an Indian back then."

Nearly 3 billion people, most living in low-income countries, rely on solid fuel for cooking and heating, air pollution from which directly caused 3.5 million premature deaths in 2010 and another half million through its contribution to outdoor air pollution.

Acute lower respiratory infections (ALRIs) in children, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder and lung cancer in women exposed to coal smoke have been shown to have a strong association with solid fuel smoke. Nearly half of the deaths among children under 5 years old from ALRIs are due to particulate matter inhaled from indoor smoke from household solid fuels.

"The major source of indoor air pollution comes from domestic use of solid fuels," said Chen-Yuan Chiang, Director of the, Department of Lung Health and Non-Communicable Diseases, International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease. "Globally, about 50 percent of all households and 90 percent of rural households use solid fuels (coal and biomass) as the main domestic source of energy. About 50 percent of the world population is exposed to the harmful effects of these combustion products. Strategies to reduce indoor air pollution include making available alternate, cleaner types of fuel, improving access to better stoves used for cooking and heating, improving the quality of the ventilation used for the stoves and providing education for behavior change."

Hara Mihalea, a renowned public health and TB consultant from Thailand, says unsafe and polluted air, along with contaminated drinking water, contribute significantly to the health and quality of life of people worldwide. She strongly feels that: "unsafe air not only has severe health consequences like pulmonary and respiratory problems even in children, but also financial consequences to communities, individuals and governments by way of loss of work days/income and money spent on health care. The grim consequences of polluted air and contaminated water have gone just too far and to address them we will have to address poverty and invest in building proper community infrastructure."

In urban India, the increasing density of population along with the fast increase in the number of cars and factories is adding heavily to the increase of carbon dioxide in the air, according to Lucknow based environmentalist Prabha Chaturvedi. Coupled with this is the denudation of the forest cover that results in the reduction of oxygen in the atmosphere.

"At the individual level we can take some positive steps to mitigate the problem—reduce the use of automobiles; reduce use of fossil fuels for cooking and heating; planting as many trees as possible," Chaturvedi says. "Also, open-air exercises, morning walks and deep breathing should find a regular place in our daily routine to improve the quality of our health."

Government has a responsibility for cleaning up air, but so do individuals. Ventilation in homes to let in fresh air/light; maintaining gardens in houses in the neighbourhood—tray gardens when there is no outdoor space; using car pools; encouraging school going children to use cycles instead of pampering them with two wheelers; using cloth shopping bags to reduce litter; using more green energy sources such as solar cookers, geysers and solar batteries; reducing the use of wooden furniture—if demand is reduced then tree cutting will be reduced; and above all not allowing anybody to smoke indoors.

We should collectively strive to put an end to the indiscriminate polluting of the life-giving air that surrounds us. Use of appropriate technology and fuel as well as educating ourselves and others about what we can do to avoid air pollution and its hazards is very important.

Clean air has to be there for all of us forever—there cannot be a copyright on it—so that we can inhale it safely and share it too with our fellow beings in our homes, schools, and work/public places without any fear of getting sick through airborne diseases.

(Shobha Shukla, Citizen News Service is the Managing Editor of Citizen News Service - CNS. Email: shobha@citizen-news.org, website: http://www.citizen-news.org)