06 Feb 2018 13:20 IST

Why air pollution is a ‘national health emergency’

Expert says that in most places it is equivalent to smoking 5-7 cigarettes

There are few non-smokers in India. One may not smoke; may even be a just-born, but still inhale the pollution equivalent to five to seven cigarettes a day. That is how bad the situation is, not just in Delhi (where it is worse) but across the country.

Each person living in the National Capital Region, in one way or other, ‘smokes’ not less than 16 cigarettes a day. That was the central message left by Arvind Kumar, Chairman, Centre for Chest Surgery, and Director, Institute of Robotic Surgery at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital in New Delhi, at a recent media workshop on air pollution held here.

The workshop was organised by ‘Healthy Energy Initiative’, a global collaboration of health professionals and organisations, which advocates a shift-away from fossil fuels . India has the dubious distinction as the country with the highest number of deaths due to air pollution, Kumar said.

Most Indians are unaware of the enormity of the problem, said Kumar, who is also the Founder and Managing Trustee of the Lung Care Foundation, New Delhi. Air pollution causes a huge range of problems, including lung cancer.

Earlier, lung cancer used to be common only among smokers, but today more than half of Kumar’s lung- cancer patients are people who do not smoke. And, 95 per cent of lung-cancer patients die in five years. Air pollution is a ‘national health emergency’, he said.

Myths busted

Kumar said people ought to be aware of the myths about air pollution. One way to control it is to wear a mask. Most of the masks sold in pharmacies are useless . Only ‘N 95 or N 99’ masks are useful, provided they are worn tight across the nose. They also prevent large particles entering lungs. For finer particles — P2.5 and less — masks are of no use. In any case, masks can keep out only particulate matter, not gases. Harmful gases in the air, like sox and nox, will pass through the masks anyway..

Another myth is of self-cure methods like yoga. Yoga helps enhance lung capacity, but if the lungs are lined with particulate deposits, yoga cannot help remove them, Kumar said. In fact, nothing can get the particles deposited in the lungs out. Finally, contrivances such as air purifiers are of little use, because they have very limited effect across a huge space.

When President Obama visited Delhi, the US Embassy had 1,800 air purifiers installed, at the places the President would visit, Kumar said. Instead of spending lakhs on air purifiers, it could be invested in better measures to bring down pollution.