Breathing toxic smog in the world’s most polluted places is like smoking 50 cigarettes a day!

 

The New York Times  reveals that 20 million residents in New Delhi, India are wading through the worst smog the city has seen in 17 years.  Air quality reports indicate that the levels of the most dangerous pollutant, PM 2.5,  have skyrocketed to 70 times what the World Health Organization considers safe (12 to 16 times the limit that India’s own government considers safe). Experts say that the damage from exposure to PM 2.5 is the equivalent of smoking 50 cigarettes a day.  The Indian Medical Association has declared a state of medical emergency, urging residents to remain indoors. But in a city where most do not have the luxury of taking time off of work, people have no choice but to risk exposure to the pollutants.

Some in the Gurgaon area near Delhi. By Saurabh Kumar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Smog in the Gurgaon area near Delhi. By Saurabh Kumar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 wikicommons

According to Epa.gov, PM 2.5 are fine, inhalable particles whose diameters are 2.5 micrometers and smaller. When inhaled, tiny particulates can become lodged in breathing passageways, triggering asthma and other cardio-pulmonary illnesses. A recent article published by the Lancet‘s Commission on Public Health indicates that pollution is the largest environmental cause of disease and death in the world today— responsible for an estimated 9 million premature deaths in 2015. These rates particularly affect low-income and middle-income countries where 92-percent of pollution-related deaths occur.  In 2015, an estimated 2.5 million Indian people died from exposure to air pollutants. With the annual increase in levels of air pollution, that number is only expected to rise.

History of Smog

The word smog is derived from a combination of smoke and fog (Smoke +Fog= SMOG — genius! )

During the Industrial Revolution, large cities like London provided the setting for the technological, cultural, and economic changes illustrative of the time.  In the early industrial age, British production depended almost entirely on a single fuel source: coal. Coal was used to warm homes, power steam engines, and turn the wheels of industry.  Though unregulated coal burning obscured the skies in industrial cities, it took over two centuries for Europeans to recognize the health hazards related to its atmospheric pollution. During the Great Smog of 1952, coal pollution blanketed the city of London, England in a veil of darkness that forced the closure of city streets, railways, and airports. In the span of one week, more than 4,000 people died from respiratory illnesses and policymakers were forced to act. In the weeks to follow, an estimated total of 12,000 people were victims of the polluted air.

Where does India’s pollution come from?

The Indian government faults emissions from vehicles, factories, power plants, and construction as the main contributors to this winter’s horrible smog. Since last year’s record-breaking smog, New Delhi residents have called for increased regulation and policies that would help regulate emissions, but progress has been slow. At the 2015 Paris agreement to address climate change, India promised to curb emissions by moving away from fossil fuels.  However, they face a great challenge as 30-percent of the population still does not have access to what is now considered a basic need: electricity. While the demand for inexpensive power begins to rise, areas within South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa— two regions of the globe with the least access to electricity— have become targets for renewable growth. But with renewable energy costs nowhere near as affordable as fossil fuel energy, one wonders how these lower-income areas will be able to move towards development.

Sulfer dioxide emissions. By Brocken Inaglory, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17778985

Sulfer dioxide emissions. By Brocken Inaglory, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17778985

Let’s get one thing straight: air pollution is not isolated to India— it is happening worldwide.  China, the US, and India are the top three emitters of greenhouse gases, and while China takes the lead— if you examine the per capita (per person) pollution rate— the US more than doubles China’s emissions rate. Climate experts say there is no room for emissions in developing countries to reach the high levels that have been typical of wealthier countries. Fossil fuel generated electricity— the largest single source of greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide— would only intensify current levels of pollution. One potential solution for this growing concern came from the 2015 Paris agreement which responds to the threat of global climate change with the goal of lowering global temperature to  pre-industrial levels. The agreement recognized that the poorest countries cannot afford to invest in renewable energy on their own and has promised extensive financial and technical help to them.  As the US pulls its support from the climate agreement, it remains to be seen how much help will be given to the developing countries from other UN nations.

Busy street in Nepal shrouded in smog. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Busy street in Nepal shrouded in smog. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

In addition to vehicular and industrial emissions, the practices of clearing green spaces and burning croplands has also contributed to the decline in air quality in New Delhi. For farmers in India and neighboring Pakistan, crop burning is the traditional way to dispose of leftovers after their late-October harvest. Fire is used to quickly clear fields of wheat, rice and sugarcane for replanting and some believe the char is ideal for re-growth. However, the smoke that often rises over Delhi is anything but ideal.  During the winter, there is little wind and the capital is most vulnerable to toxic smog.

Rice crop burning in India. https://upload.wikimedia.org/

Rice crop burning in India. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia

 

How can you help?

A fix to the greenhouse gas emission crisis that we face is not the work of one person. It will require working together on a global scale to implement changes. Here are a few things you can do in your own life to make a difference:

  1. Recycle waste, reduce consumption, REUSE! If you are going to buy something that is disposable, try to get more than one use out of it. Sew a small tear in your clothing and take your shoes, wallet, or purse to a repair shop before you decide to toss them.
  2. Participate in your local food system. Shop local farmers markets and CSA’s and help cut the estimated 13% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the production and transportation of food.
  3. Carpool when you can. Ride your bike. Walk to close destinations.
  4. Get to know the place where you live so well that you want to protect it. Attend city council meetings when an area is marked for development. Get involved and ask questions, such as how many trees will remain as green belt space to increase the   production of oxygen.
  5. Support organizations that work to better the planet.
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