Air Quality and Your Health

Of course, we know that we are not immortal. But it is every person’s wish to lead a fulfilling life filled with health and happiness. Health and happiness are inextricably linked. There is so much that we read about holistic health to live robustly, the DO’s and DON’T’s of diet, exercise, and rest.

But are we considering the very essence of life- THE AIR WE BREATHE? Air pollution has steadily become a major risk to health. As it so happens,, air is everywhere and we cannot stop breathing.

Is this some sort of doomsday prediction? Are we being made to panic by ‘vested interests’?

Consider that no less a body than the World Health Organisation has sounded the alarm.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) had laid out the guidelines for air quality, both ambient (outdoor) and indoor, as far back as 1987 and updates parameters regularly in keeping with current developments and emissions. Annually,WHO attributes more than 2 million (20 lakh) premature deaths caused by exposure to polluted air, with more than half of this number coming from developing nations like India and China.

Air Quality

The WHO air quality guidelines set targets for outdoor concentrations of particulate matter (PM), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2) and ozone (O3).
The WHO has developed a comprehensive programme to support less developed countries where the scourge of indoor air pollution can be laid at the door of outdated and inefficient cooking and heating methods. Ill-ventilated dwellings compound the dangers of smoke-filled indoor air, with women and children who spend the maximum time at the hearth, being the most affected.

Who is affected?

Each and every living being on this planet is affected by inhaling polluted air. We are not talking about just human health (though it is a major concern), but the health of our beautiful planet too. Life on Earth is interdependent and air pollution is painting every living entity with the same polluted brush.

Continuing studies and research have added more information to the health hazard that air pollution poses: the exact effects depend on many factors, but these can be concisely generalized

  • By current health and age
  • The length of exposure to pollutants
  • The kind of pollutants

The terrible three

Air pollutants can be very classified into three broad categories:
#1. Ground level ozone is a product of the reaction between Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and oxides of nitrogen under the ultraviolet rays of the sun. VOCs and nitrogen oxides are emissions from vehicles and machinery including farm and construction equipment.

#2. Particulate matter is a very complex mixture of different substances in varying proportions, which is formed as a byproduct of burning. It is also formed because of reactions of various gaseous emissions like nitrous oxides in the atmosphere. Soot, dust, water, smoke, metals, sulfates, nitrates, and even rubber from tyres constitute PM. The size of the particles is linked to the harm it causes, with the smallest particles (PM2.5) being the most hazardous as they pass through the natural respiratory filters in the nose and throat and enter deep into the lungs.

#3. Gaseous emissions like nitrogen compounds and carbon monoxide as well as the innumerable poisonous chemicals that factories belch into the air cause irreparable damage, sometimes leading to death.

An ill wind blows no good

The effects of air pollution may not always be immediate and range from minor discomfort to serious life-threatening diseases and debilitating conditions. The list is long and worrisome, and by no means, comprehensive:


Who gets hit and hurt?

The answer to this one would be EVERYONE. But there are some more susceptible than others, who are hit faster, or harder, or both. Here is a list, by no means exhaustive:

  • Children under 14, whose bodies are still developing and who breathe in more air per unit of body weight
  • Pregnant women
  • The elderly
  • Those who are already ill especially with heart and lung diseases
  • Athletes who exercise outdoors
  • Outdoor workers or workers exposed to effluents like sanitation and industrial workers, painters etc.

What is to be done!

Every responsible citizen must work towards reducing his/her contribution to air pollution by adopting a way of life conducive to keeping air clean. Burning of garden and other wastes, giving up smoking, controlled use of pesticides and insecticides as well as home and office cleaning equipment, and the responsible use of vehicles are just some of the very doable suggestions.

Governments and communities have also swung into action and the most successful approaches to curbing air pollution have included guidelines and controls:
For industry: adopting clean technologies and reducing smokestack emissions and treating them to be less harmful
For transport: shifting to more non-polluting vehicle design and fuels
For urban planning: making cities compact and more energy efficient and shifting to ‘green’ building materials and designs
For power generation: increased production of renewable energy like solar, wind and hydropower
For municipal and agricultural waste management: strategizing waste management, incineration, and disposal by adopting biological methods like anaerobic waste digestion with the added advantage of biogas production.

In addition, governments of developing economies must ensure modern and clean fuels and stoves for domestic use in cooking, lighting, and heating.

Implementation of measures takes time and is an uphill task. It needs not just intent but commitment. In the meantime, while governments and communities limp towards a cleaner and greener environment, we must do our best to take care of our loved ones and ourselves. So,

  • Keep a check on air quality in your home
  • Avoid sources of pollution or polluted areas when possible
  • Use N95 Respirator which work efficiently to protect you from PM2.5. This is doubly important for children.
    Invest in a suitablemechanism to clean the air at home

Claim your breath of clean air!

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