Highlights

  • Does the problem of bad air affect everyone the same?
  • How much worse is pollution for children?
  • Protection measures not always accessible to everyone

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Air pollution: equally bad for all? | The Issue

Pollution while bad for all living in the city, affects people of different age, gender and social strata very differently. Numerous studies have found the exacerbated effect that pollution has on those coming from a marginalised background. 

Air pollution can shorten lives by almost 10 years in the Indian capital, Delhi, the world's most polluted city, says a report by a US research group. The air pollution in the city is choking its residents, particularly the marginalized. And understanding the severity of the problem is the need of the hour.

The smog-filled air, which usually covers Indian cities during the winter months, contains dangerously high levels of fine particulate matter called PM2.5 - tiny particles that can clog lungs and cause a host of diseases.

Delhi has been ranked the most polluted city in the world as per a global analysis of air quality as recently as 2022. The report analyses pollution and global health effects for more than 7,000 cities around the world, focusing on two of the most harmful pollutants, fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and nitrogen dioxide.

Air pollution is among the leading causes of premature mortality worldwide and leads to lung and cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other illnesses. This risk gets so much more exacerbated when it comes to children. Children are more prone to breathing toxic air, and that's because they breathe more rapidly. And so even lower levels of exposure could mean that they’re breathing more pollutants than adults around them.

Also watch - Childhood air pollution exposure can prohibit cognitive prowess later in life

Pollution also leads to lower memory and IQ, with infants being most affected in the first 1000 days of their birth, which is when most brain development happens. According to a study conducted in 2017, every 3 minutes, a child died India due to air pollution. In 2019, close to 160,000 infants in India died within the first month of being born due to air pollution. Over half of the infant deaths were caused by PM 2.5 in the air, while the rest were attributed to household aggravation caused by the use of solid fumes for cooking.

Like everything else, even the issue of clean air is influenced by many factors. The deadly impact of pollution on children in middle and low-income countries like India was highlighted by a report by the WHO in 2018. In these countries, 98% of all children under five are exposed to PM 2.5 levels above WHO’s air quality guidelines. In comparison, among high income countries, 52% of children under age five are exposed to levels above W.H.O. air quality guidelines.

Also watch - India's poorest 9 times more likely to die of air pollution than the rich: study

This isn’t just about global inequality but a matter of class divide within India too. A study has found that poorer households in India bear disproportional impact from pollution caused by others. Experts say that this pollution hits the poor and marginalized more because they often tend to live and work near industrial sites and tend to burn things like wood, corn, dung or kerosene inside their homes.

It is also important to remember that things like N95 masks or air purifiers, or even the ability to leave the city for a few weeks when the pollution is at its peak is a privilege that not everybody has can afford.

Higher income groups indirectly contribute to pollution through the manufacturing of the products they consume as well as their use of transportation and electricity. But wealthier households are shielded from the effects because of access to air conditioning, better health care, and more efficient buildings and clean-energy stoves.

Also watch - From childhood to old-age: The long-term effects of pollution on brainpower

By virtue of having to carry the domestic burden of cooking within the homes, women after often more susceptible to indoor air pollution, which has direct impact on their reproductive health. Numerous studies done in the past have shown that air pollution increases the risk of premature birth and complications during pregnancy like preeclampsia, and gestational hypertension. Inhaling particulate matter is increasing the prevalence of anaemia among women of reproductive age.

The problem of air pollution clearly affects people belonging to diverse backgrounds differently, and therefore solutions to the matter must also be proposed keeping these inequalities in mind. Delhi’s AQI for years now has now surpassed all warnings by the WHO – a good time to take action was years ago, and steps must be taken as swiftly as possible.

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