Experts say that, considering the havoc wrought on people’s health by air pollution, the environmental problem should be formally recognized as a cause of death.
The experts spoke variously at a forum of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the World Economic Forum.
Air pollution has been described as a silent killer that claims seven million lives a year, according to the WHO.
But experts say air pollution is particularly harmful to young children because they breathe faster, meaning they take in more pollutants, and their bodies are still developing.
More than half a million children under five died in 2016 from respiratory infections caused by ambient and household air pollution, the WHO estimates.
And the risks start in unborn children, with foetuses exposed to pollution in their mother’s womb.
Tracking 1,759 children who were between ages 10 and 18 from 1993 to 2001, researchers found that those who grew up in more polluted areas face the increased risk of having reduced lung growth, which may never recover to their full capacity.
air pollution is particularly harmful to young children because they breathe faster, meaning they take in more pollutants, and their bodies are still developing
In November, a study published in Nature Communications found that in 2015, more than 40% of two million stillbirths in 137 countries – or more than 800,000 stillbirths – were the result of exposure to ambient fine particles exceeding the WHO guideline.
The first Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health, launched by the WHO, showed that 93% of the world’s children under 15 years of age are breathing such polluted air that their health and development are at risk.
According to the WHO Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, early exposure to air pollution was giving children a “life sentence of illness.”
Speaking at the World Economic Forum, WHO Assistant Director-General, Dr. Maria Neira, warned that “Ambient air pollution in both cities and rural areas as well as dangerous levels of household air pollution due to inefficient fuels and devices for heating, lighting and cooking is posing a major threat to public health.
“This is not acceptable anymore. We need to accelerate the transition to clean and sustainable energy which will not only contribute to make people healthier, it will also protect our planet and mitigate the impacts of climate change.”
How does air pollution affect people’s health?
Air pollution affects every cell in the human body. The portal of entry is the lungs. But after getting absorbed into the blood from there, from brain to toe, every organ of the body gets affected.
In the lungs, the effect starts as soon as we are born and we start breathing polluted air. So, these toxins become black deposits on the lungs of children and it goes on increasing with age.
When it reaches beyond a certain limit, the symptoms start and become more severe. They may range from brain symptoms like hyper-irritability, loss of memory and neuro-inflammatory disorders, to various heart ailments like high blood pressure and heart attacks, to respiratory problems from asthma, pneumonia, Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and the dreaded lung cancer, which is now being linked to smoking as well as air pollution.
Now there is a statement that diabetes may also be related to this as well as obesity. The Lung Care Foundation did a study in children in Delhi and found nearly 30% of the children having spirometry detected asthma and this is clearly the effect of air pollution.
How does air pollution actually kill people?
The impact of air pollution starts even before a child is born. There are studies available now which say that when a pregnant mother breathes polluted air, it causes deformities, growth retardation and even death in the foetus in the uterus.
And this process continues after you are born. As you grow older, the tissues continue to get damaged. Initially you have diseases, then you have more severe disease and ultimately, it results in death.
So air pollution is responsible for a huge amount of disease, disability and finally death.
Experts lament that air pollution is currently not getting listed as a cause of death, but it needs to be highlighted. And doctors are in the best position to do that.