Making every breath a fresh lease of life

Long gone are the days when we could casually throw open the windows to let in some fresh air. Now, we shudder at the thought of it, and it is not without reason.  

A survey of 2016 ranks India at a poor 141st position out of 180 countries in its Environmental Performance Index; and the WHO reports that 13 out of the 25 most polluted cities are in India. The Delhi smog is a testimony to these statistics, with other towns and cities not so far behind.

India has many factors contributing to poor air quality: economic  reasons prompt  people in rural areas to burn inefficient fossil fuels for cooking and heating whereas the cities are rife with vehicular exhaust and industrial effluents. Also, burning of crops and garbage is a common practice, further worsening the situation.

The high levels of particulate matter and toxic gases in the atmosphere are the outcomes of massive deforestation, rapid industrialisation, unchecked regulation for pollution emission (both vehicular and industrial), use of adulterated fuels and enormous dust from mega constructional activities.

With such abysmal outdoor air quality, can we seek refuge indoors? Alarmingly, the indoor air quality is far more polluted and is high in volatile organic compounds (VOC). Lifestyle conveniences have multiplied the use of chemicals in every aspect of living. Glues used for furniture, paints, aerosols, cosmetics, pesticides, insecticides, home and office cleaners, all release stubborn toxic chemicals silently into the ambient atmosphere. They circulate within the closed spaces of homes and offices, contributing to the contamination which we unwittingly inhale putting ourselves at serious health risks.

A WHO report says that nearly 1.5 million people succumb annually to the ill-effects of pollution in our country with a sharp rise seen in Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorders (COPD). Some medical experts in Bengaluru report that 20% of the severe heart attack cases are due to air pollution.

While children, elders and pregnant women are at a high risk, even unborn children face exposure to the perils of pollu ­tion. Research indicates that urban children have diminished lung capacity while another study finds that benefits of a two-hour workout are nullified by short exposure to pollution.

Apart from respiratory difficulty, airborne chemical toxins irritate the skin, eyes and throat, causing nerve, digestive and muscular disorders. Persistent headaches, nausea, and dizziness are common symptoms due to pollution.

Air purifiers may offer some respite, but they are expensive and limited in function, removing only specific types of pollutants. A Nasa research shows that indoor plants act as natural air purifiers and are far more dependable than their commercial counterparts, as they are capable of removing VOCs,
allergens and carbon oxides. By a process called phytoremediation, plants and the microbes (in the soil) work together to absorb and synthesise the toxins effectively and also replenish oxygen to the ambient.

Leading the way

As we move farther away from the life-supporting system that nature provides us, problems are sure to arise: an IISc survey reveals that in the past 30 years, India has lost 30,000 km of forest to expansion projects.
Artificial forests are a poor substitute, say the experts, as the adverse change has already begun. Environmentalists opine that ravages of air pollution have reached a stage which calls for stricter measures. Some nations are showing how.

The Netherlands government is reportedly opting to ban all petrol and diesel cars by 2025, replacing them with electric and hydrogen vehicles. Germany has laid bicycle tracks for nearly 500 km and offers many incentives like free public transport and cheaper housing to its public who choose to give up cars.

In the US, an amended Environment Protection Bill allows its citizens to sue anyone found to be polluting the environment (industrial as well as public), and stringent action is taken against the violators.

Along with offering efficient public transport system, the nations are also searching for alternative energy sources and higher efficiency fuels as well as
upgrading the technology to ta ­ckle the gargantuan problem.

While we frantically look for ways to put our cities on the road to recovery, it is evident that a change in approach, bold decisions and nature-friendly choices alone can bring about a substantial difference.

The onus is also on each one of
us to exhibit a collective social responsibility and make wise lifestyle choices to minimise pollutants around us. Barry Commoner, an American ecologist,
sums it up well: "Environmental pollution is an incurable disease. It can only be prevented."

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