Change is in the air

Let’s look at doable-at-individual-level ideas to save ourselves and the world.

On June 5, in a well-appointed room in Hangzhou (China), numbers will tumble from the dais and frighten everyone. Numbers about death and disease, and a tomorrow where each breath of fresh air will become more precious than gold.

On World Environment Day, with ‘Air Pollution’ as the theme, leaders, policy makers, activists, will stare at the numbers again — according to a United Nations’ report, each year, approximately 7 million people worldwide die prematurely from air pollution, with about 4 million of these deaths occurring in Asia-Pacific, Africa.

Worldwide, ambient air pollution accounts for 29 percent of all deaths and disease from lung cancer, 17 percent of all deaths and disease from acute lower respiratory infection, 24 percent of all deaths from stroke,
25 percent of all deaths and disease from ischaemic heart disease, and 43 percent of all deaths and disease from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. 

The numbers are getting bigger each day and many of the world’s megacities exceed World Health Organisation’s guideline levels for air quality by more than five times. India is a polluted top runner. Home to some of the most polluted cities in the world, exposure to outdoor and indoor air pollution contributes to over 1.2 million deaths in India annually.

The life, on average, of a South Asian child growing up in the current high levels of air pollution will be shortened by two years and six months, while the global life expectancy loss is 20 months. Smoking is no longer the monster; toxic air is. 

But not all is lost. Next time, when you gasp for breath or notice the layer of soot on your shirt, do not ponder. Shake your head and think of backpack-wearing smart pigeons, bacteria-eating moss, high-rise forest, ultra-frequency radio waves. In a desperate moment, the thought of mother-in-law’s tongue might just resuscitate you. If that’s too much, think turmeric, gooseberries and sugarcane. In that well-appointed room in Hangzhou, while participants will urge governments, industry, communities and individuals to come together to explore renewable energy and green technologies, and improve air quality in cities and regions across the world, let’s look at doable-at-individual-level ideas to save ourselves and the world.  

High-rise forest 

An innovation by Italian architect Stefano Boeri, high-rise forests are often touted as one of the best solutions for cities dealing with dust and particulate matter. Boeri says the idea came from his obsession with trees and the determination to make them ‘an essential component of architecture’, particularly as a weapon to combat climate change. Essentially a series of vertical gardens built on residential or commercial buildings, these forests absorb the toxic pollutants in the air in cities where there is no space for a park. The first of these ‘high-rise forests’ was built in Milan in 2014, where for every human being living in the building, there are about two trees, 10 shrubs and 40 plants. Boeri’s idea is now being adopted by several countries and might be the best fix for the concrete jungles in India. 

Ultra High-Frequency radio waves

During a half-marathon in the city, Delhi came up with an innovative solution using Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) radio waves to clear the air for runners. According to Devic Earth, the company that came up with the idea, “UHF radio waves can reduce PM 2.5 microns and 10 microns by 30-40 percent” and added that “acute illnesses related to air pollution are reduced by
33 percent in the area covered by the system.” Scientists are calling for rigorous scientific evaluation before certifying UHF as a good killer of bad pollutants.

Green rooftops

Architects, worldwide, are now looking at plants as messiahs. On the drawing board, they are designing plants into the roofs of houses and apartments. Not only do the plants add a tinge of verdant green to the landscape, they also remove carbon dioxide and harmful pollutants from the air and improve its quality. After a survey, the city of Los Angeles, one of the most polluted cities in the US, discovered that one square metre of green roof removed about 100 grams of particulate matter per year, the equivalent pollution of an average car for an entire year.

Bill C Wolverton, one of the original NASA researchers and author of the 2010 book Plants: Why You Can’t Live Without Them, has been working in Japan, where plants have been used to make 50 to 60 ‘ecological gardens’ in hospitals.

It is not a new idea, though. Close to two decades’ worth of environmental science studies on green roofs have shown promising results about their ability to reduce particulate matter from the air. 

Pollution-eating moss

The wise men said that rolling stones gather no moss. Perhaps not. But there is a moss that eats pollution. Kinda. Called CityTree, this self-watering, self-monitoring and solar-powered piece of green technology mimics the action of 275 real trees to clean and cool air. However, it isn’t a tree at all — it’s a moss culture that efficiently binds particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, ozone and carbon dioxide while producing valuable oxygen.

Each CityTree is able to absorb around 250 grams of particulate matter a day (nearly 90 kg in a year), removes about 240 metric tons of CO2 annually, and also cools the surrounding air by water evaporation (up to 17 degrees Celsius within a five-metre radius).

Think a little further of moss in a paint. Airlite (funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme), builds pollution-removing mosses and bacteria into wall paint.

According to the company, thanks to the oxidising action of Airlite, odour molecules are naturally broken down, reducing all harmful compounds and delivering fresher and more pleasant air to the environment. Airlite reduces not only the odours, but also their causes.

Mother-in-law’s tongue

This might sound freaky, spooky, creepy, but mother-in-law’s tongue is a great air purifier. Not the real m-i-l and her real long wagging tongue. Also known as snake plant and viper’s bowstring hemp, this  desert plant removes soot and other chemicals from the often charcoal-coloured outdoor air and converts poisonous substances into oxygen. And it’s also an incredibly strong and ‘easy to care for’ plant.

Face masks

Masks are not for everyone. Not the metaphorical one, but face masks should be for everyone. A face mask can protect one from the deadly tiny particulate matter that enter deep into the lungs and play havoc with health. Not all masks really work, though. A mask with a capacity to filter out tiny microns can help but they must be worn all the time and be completely sealed around the nose and the mouth.

Traditional Indian wisdom swears by the sour green fruits that are loaded with anti-oxidants and can help boost immunity and reduce the impact of pollution.

Nutritionists suggest a concoction made with turmeric, ginger and Indian basil, or eating jaggery or clarified butter.

Rich in micro-nutrients, sugarcane is also a good option — it helps to cleanse/detoxify the liver and beat lethargy and low moods caused by the smog.

Pigeon patrol

It might sound like a bird-brained idea, but scientists are relying on smart, backpack-wearing flock of pigeons to carry out scientific studies on air quality. London’s Pigeon Air Patrol is a flock of ‘superbirds’ capable of measuring nitrogen dioxide in a city with some of the highest levels of air pollution in the world. Strapped with 25-gram sensors, these pigeons took to the skies to measure the harmful emissions not always visible to the naked eye. Next time, do not shoo a pigeon away. Who knows she might be on a job to save the world! 

Closing notes

“One must be a sea to receive a polluted stream without becoming impure,” Friedrich Nietzsche had said. But when he lived, there was no plastic in the streams, no toxic mercury in the fish’s belly, and no pollutants in the air. He never had to gasp for fresh air.

Can we return to Nietzsche’s no-air-pollution world, please?


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