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Air pollution affecting even foetal growth

The Times of India, New Delhi, 5th December, 2014


Durgesh Nandan Jha


NEW DELHI: India may be heading towards an epidemic of babies born small, premature and with poor mental growth if urgent steps are not taken to curb air pollution, doctors have warned. This is in addition to lung ailments like asthma and heart diseases. Of all cities, Delhi is the most vulnerable as it has the highest pollution level. 


According to the experts, anything that affects the growth of organs tends to impact the foetus and newborns most. "The high incidence of neural tube defect in newborns, where the spinal cord is not formed well even among well-nourished mothers, is a clear example. Other birth defects are also common," said Dr Neelam Kler, chairperson of the neonatology department at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital (SGRH). She said the link between air pollution and birth defects was discussed at a World Health Organisation (WHO) meeting recently. 


According to the 2010 global burden of disease report, outdoor air pollution caused more than 6,20,000 premature deaths in India.



Nearly 18 million healthy years of life were lost that year. In Delhi, experts fear, the health impact of air pollution could be higher due to heavy density of particulate matter. The Capital has been held as the world's most polluted cities by global bodies, including WHO. 


SGRH, in collaboration with Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), is undertaking a retrospective study in which the air quality near the house of mothers who gave birth to babies between 2007 and 2012 will be assessed to find a link between pollution and the neonate's birth weight. 


The government formed a committee to look into the disease burden associated with air pollution and ways to reduce its impact last year. Dr K Srinath Reddy, who is heading the committee, told TOI: "Air pollution is playing havoc with people's health. The review of available medical literature and clinical findings by top researchers reveals it is affecting people of all ages and has a role to play even in heart diseases that are generally associated with lifestyle factors." 


Dr Sandeep Salvi, director of Chest Research Foundation (CRF), said globally about eight million deaths are caused due to air pollution. "In India, we have no such data at present. But clinical experience shows pollutants, particularly the particulate matter, are behind poor lung growth in children. It causes asthma, bronchitis and pneumonia which is a major killer in the age-group. Even in grown-ups, we are seeing high incidence of asthma and COPD," he said. 


The CRF recently did a study in which it found that Indians have 30% lower lung function as compared to Europeans. Things could get worse if immediate steps are not taken to curb vehicular emission, doctors warned. 


But the risk of air pollution does not end here. The most frightening impact of this preventable disaster could come in the form of lung cancer, warns Dr P K Julka, professor of oncology, at AIIMS. "Several pollutants contain chemical carcinogens, such as benzene, form- aldehyde and polycyclic hydrocarbon, among others. It is slow poison and may certainly add to the burden of cancer in the country in the coming years if urgent steps to curb vehicular emission are not taken."


Times View


The unacceptably high level of pollution in Delhi is threatening our children as well as the elderly. The health risks arising from foul urban air is well documented. The government has been pathetically lethargic in addressing this serious issue even when it was staring in the eye. Keeping air pollution in check is by no means an impossible task. Many cities around the world have shown how it can be done. It requires advance planning for building an effective public transport system, thus reducing the need for private vehicles. In Delhi, the Metro—a non-polluting mode of travel—is growing, but it wasn't planned sufficiently in advance to meet the growing city's transport needs. Lessons must be learnt from this and other cities must build their public transport system in advance before high emission levels choke them too. 


The government has no option but to take some drastic steps to speed up the public transport system and curb the number of cars on Delhi roads. For the former, the last-mile connectivity for the Metro must be built on a war footing. If the latter means higher parking charges, registration fee, banning smoke-spewing trucks from entering the city, setting up vehicle-free zones, so be it. Future generations can't be allowed to suffer for our squeamishness or selfishness. And in the meantime, the government must own up its responsibility for past omissions that have led to medical problems for people. It should subsidize, if not fully pay for the treatment of those suffering respiratory, heart ailments or skin problems caused by such high levels of pollution.