Since childhood, we’ve been told of the ill-effects of smoking cigarettes. Cigarette cartons come with graphic warnings about how smoking kills. While we’re intolerant of cigarette smoke, we’re shockingly accepting of the toxic air in our cities. Delhi has been in the news for its deplorable air quality for a few years now -- breathing the air in that city is equal to smoking 20 cigarettes a day. The pollution levels have only now started to capture media discourse and public concern.
Is Bengaluru better off? Bengaluru’s problem is what we can call the ‘blue sky’ syndrome. The beautiful blue skies and near-perfect climate belie the poor air quality. Most people are oblivious to just how bad the situation is.
The data from the government merely indicates ambient air quality, which doesn’t give the real picture of what citizens are exposed to. A study by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), New Delhi, reveals that the actual exposure levels in Bengaluru can be 4-5 times that of ambient levels.
The high level of pollution affects everyone. Exposure during pregnancy can result in babies born with low birth weight and increased risk of mental and physical disorders.
Young children breathing polluted air can develop asthma, wheezing, atherosclerosis and slow down the development of lung function. In adults, poor air quality can cause asthma, coronary heart disease, lung cancer and diabetes. The elderly are at the risk of dementia, accelerated decline of lung function, heart attacks.
How is pollution affecting us?
• 20% of the severe cases of heart attacks admitted in Sri Jayadeva Institute’s cardiology ICU are due to air pollution
• 25% of Bengaluru’s children have asthma
• 35% increase in the number of non-smoking Indians with lung cancer
• Exposure to 22 mg of PM2.5 per cubic metre of air a day is equivalent to smoking one cigarette a day.
So, what is polluting the air in Bengaluru? The biggest culprits are the lakhs of vehicles on the city’s roads. A study by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in 2006 revealed that vehicular pollution is the primary source of the dangerous PM2.5, which is inhalable particulate matter so fine that it is 30 times smaller than the width of a strand of hair!
A decade later, an Urban Emissions (UE) research in 2015 showed that vehicular exhaust and on road dust re-suspension, contribute to 56% of the PM2.5 levels. Vehicular pollution is consistent as the major contributor, while construction dust has replaced diesel generators as the second highest contributor.
As pollutant particles get finer than ever (PM10, PM2.5, now PM1!), our bodies’ natural defence mechanisms, such as nasal hair, mucous lining, etc., can no longer combat them. As a result, these pass through the nose, the respiratory system and get deposited in the lungs, and from there into the blood stream and all our organs.
The World Health Organization (WHO), which has been spearheading the fight against tobacco the world over, has acknowledged air pollution as a serious concern. In 2018, it labelled air pollution as the new tobacco, killing seven million annually. Children are particularly vulnerable. Being shorter than adults, they breathe air that is closer to the ground and more polluted — most of Bengaluru’s air pollution comes off the ground and near-ground sources (vehicle exhaust, construction debris and road dust).
The first step towards addressing this issue is to build awareness — most of us don’t know how bad the situation is. While we demand separate smoke-free sections in restaurants, how many of us display the same level of pro-activeness while demanding clean air for our children to breathe each time they are outdoors?
The lack of easily accessible and actionable data is the most important reason for this ignorance. It is crucial that we have access to good quality data so that we can understand the extent of the problem and take preventive measures and steps to control it.
For instance, if there are alerts issued on days when air quality is particularly bad, children and office-goers can take measures like wearing masks.
People can consciously avoid certain places at times when the air quality is very bad. They can take informed decisions while planning their exercise sessions and other activities when bad air quality will have detrimental effect than the intended benefit. In Bengaluru, it is better to avoid the morning and evening hours for walking and exercise as air pollution is worse at these hours, peaking along with the high traffic levels.
Of course, these are band-aid measures that can help only to a certain extent. Over time, both citizens and the government need to come together to find permanent sustainable solutions to address this life-threatening issue. As with the campaign against smoking and the harmful effects of tobacco, citizens from all walks of life have to come together to help us all breathe safely. Awareness is the first step.
(The writer is CEO, Clean Air Platform-Bengaluru)