National Pollution Control Day brings back the focus on the toxic air we breathe and how India’s collective health is at stake
The Supreme Court recently expressed concern on the rising air pollution and demanded immediate measures to curb it. On National Pollution Control Day, it's time to ask an important question: How long will we ignore death certificates that have air pollution written clearly on them?
A few weeks ago, the Monday after Diwali 2019, I woke up without a voice. On the night of Diwali, PM 2.5 in Gurgaon peaked at 719. In my privileged prison of air purifiers, ceiling fans groaned all night, yet PM 2.5 reached only 300 in my bedroom, which is still 10x the safe limit.
PM 2.5 remains in the atmosphere for anywhere between seven to 30 days, and travels hundreds or even thousands of miles from its source. Yet spewing this poison in the air with crackers is part of a great Indian tradition and burning crop waste in open farms a part of the great Indian mismanagement. What followed was a week of endless coughing, three visits to the doctors, prescriptions of two inhalers (Duolin and Foracort), and inhaling small bursts of oxygen per hour from a portable can.
Up until two years ago, I ran 20 km per week, biked (100ish miles per month), and never ran out of breath. One week of incessant coughing had put excess pressure on my heart, and by Sunday, my lungs were wheezing, the heart was crying, body too weak, and mind too stressed.
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On Monday, November 4, 2019, my best friend called from the airport. His 73-year old father who lived in Lucknow had a cardiac arrest. Distressed, he was hurrying home. On Wednesday, November 6, 2019, another friend reported her 76-year-old grandfather’s death. She knocked on his door for their usual Wednesday dinner date, and he didn’t open.
In 2017, Indian health minister Harsh Vardhan was reported saying, “No death certificate has the cause of death as pollution. Beyond a certain level, it is certainly detrimental to anybody’s health. But what I have said earlier, and I’m going to assert is that there is no cause for anybody to spread panic about the whole issue.”
In January 2019, he reiterated the same statement in Parliament.
I wish, he could say that regarding my friend’s grandfathers’ death. Last year, another friend’s 36-year-old husband dropped dead from cardiac arrest in November; he had been coughing for a few weeks. Was 719 ug/m3 (against a safe limit of 30 ug/m3) beyond that certain level, where air pollution was deadly to human health?
In the 2019 summer, French officials reported 1,435 deaths linked to heatwaves. These calculations are typically taken by comparing week-on-week death records in a place. In the Netherlands, 2,964 people died during the week of July 22, which was 15 percent more than during an average week in the summer. Therefore, Dutch statistics agencies attributed about 400 deaths to heat waves.
Heatwave or pollution spikes, none have showed up on death certificates in India. What we get is the plain old boring cardiac arrest. A little research shows a direct linkage between air pollution, heat stress, and cardiac arrest. Our bodies are equipped with various mechanisms to face adverse situations.
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In the case of high air pollution exposure, the first response is high mucous production to trap a maximum volume of these harmful particles and protect the lungs. In India, this air pollution-led “common cold or sour throat” symptom is caused by weather change or increasing cold. Ironically, the temperatures in Delhi have ranged between a minimum of 17 C to a maximum of 31C, and that is the definition of perfectly pleasant weather. My mother’s suggestion of ginger honey teas and steam inhalation don’t really work for the chronic cough, which triggers every time I breathe the car-exhaust pipe equivalent air.
The next response to high (and in India, we have insanely high) pollution is coughing. Mucous production overdrive leads to lung congestion and chronic coughing, sneezing, wheezing, which in turn puts a strain on the heart. Have you ever coughed your lungs out for two minutes, and then observed your heart beating fast? Now, cough 10 or 20 times a day, and keep on doing that for seven to 10 days or 30 to 60 days with North Indian pollution-led chronic cold symptoms, and you are talking about some serious heat stress.
The heart symptoms start with fast beats and pounding, like you just ran a race, except that you just walked a few steps in a gas chamber. This is followed by chest discomfort, severe shortness of breath, weakness, and ultimately a cardiac arrest or heart failure. In older age groups, where hearts are already slightly weaker with age, the probabilities increase significantly.
As I write with a cardiac pain of 3.5/10 (three days since Sunday wherein PM 2.5 conc. has improved from 501 to 128 ug/m3), I wonder what record levels of pollution and exposure that trigger such extreme events would catch the serious attention of Indian citizens, the government, and the private sector.
In the meanwhile, complacence, ignorance, indifference, and inaction are the status quo. Imagine what is happening to the lungs and hearts of millions of coughing, wheezing, breathing children of our nation? How long will we ignore death certificates that have air pollution written clearly on them, for lack of a simple statistical calculation?
(The writer is the founder of Blue Sky Analytics.)