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No, You Do Not Become ‘Immune’ To Air Pollution. Yes, It Can Kill You!

Learn how to protect your family, and advocate for government intervention to combat the crisis.

13/10/2017 9:22 AM IST | Updated 14/10/2017 12:29 PM IST
Hindustan Times via Getty Images

This is PART I of a two-part series. Read the second part here.

Indian cities suffer from some of the most polluted air in the world. The causes include vehicle emissions, coal-burning power plants, brick kilns, slash-and-burn agriculture, open burning of waste, and firecrackers. Many find themselves asking what they can do to protect themselves and their families.

What is PM 2.5, and why worry about it?

Exposure to high levels of air pollution leads to health problems, including respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, and premature death. In 2015, approximately 4.2 million people worldwide died prematurely from diseases directly linked to air pollution. In India alone, over one million died from the effects air pollution. While air pollution can be found in the form of gases or particulate matter, particulate pollution causes the most health concerns in India.

Exposure to small particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter (PM2.5) is more dangerous than exposure to larger particles. The health impact of exposure to these small particles accumulates over a lifetime. Small particles travel deep into the lungs, then either stay there or pass through to the bloodstream, where they contribute to cardiovascular disease. Contrary to popular belief, people cannot develop immunity to air pollution, unlike germs or pathogens, making it critical to take all measures possible to reduce overall exposure. Dr Vikram Jaggi, Director of the Asthma, Chest, and Allergy Centre, Delhi, counters the misconception that air purifiers will weaken an individual: "if something is bad, more of it is more bad, and less of it is less bad!"

Children are at higher risk of illness from exposure to air pollution than adults. They breathe more air per kilo of body weight than adults, their lungs and brains are still developing, and they are more likely to suffer from asthma. Dr Jaggi confirmed that in over three decades of his clinical experience, he has seen the recovery time from respiratory ailments increase due to the rise in air pollution. A study published in 2012 showed that about one-half of Delhi students studied had suffered irreversible lung damage, and approximately one-third of students studied in 2015 in Bengaluru, Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai failed lung capacity testing.

In hazardous conditions (PM2.5 above 500 µg/m3), the EPA recommends staying indoors with windows closed, using air filters and reducing activity

What can I do to protect my family?

Choose when to enjoy outdoor activities and when to stay inside.Check online resources for real-time air monitoring stations close to you. There is no safe cutoff that can be declared for everyone, but the air quality index (AQI) established by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is a guide. When the AQI is orange/unhealthy for sensitive groups, children, the elderly, and those with heart and lung diseases may experience health effects. When the AQI is red/unhealthy, everyone may begin to experience health effects, increased rates of heart attack are observed within hours to days of exposure, and decreases in life expectancy are anticipated due to the premature mortality.

In most Indian cities in the winter, PM2.5 levels routinely exceed the unhealthy AQI category. In hazardous conditions (PM2.5 above 500 µg/m3), the EPA recommends staying indoors with windows closed, using air filters and reducing activity. Reduce the sources of air pollution generated in the house, such as candles and incense. Close the door to the kitchen and use exhaust fans while cooking, bake or boil food rather than frying.

Air Purifiers: In any building, there is an exchange between indoor and outdoor air, allowing outdoor pollution to enter the home and impact indoor air quality. Air purifiers can bring the levels of indoor air pollution down to acceptable levels. Effective purifiers rely primarily on HEPA filters to remove PM2.5 from the air and activated carbon to remove some harmful gases. Advanced purifiers are now available in India that are able to filter the smallest particles and reduce the buildup of carbon dioxide.

Plants: A number of plants are known to reduce indoor air pollution by absorbing harmful gases through their leaves and roots. However, plants alone are not able to reduce particulate matter effectively enough to make the air in Indian homes safe.

Masks: When you go outside, masks designed to guard against air pollution offer very cost-effective protection (85-99%). Some masks have an active carbon filter and are able to absorb gases as well as particulate pollution-ideal for people walking alongside traffic or riding bikes/motorbikes.

Nasal filters: Nasal filters offer an exciting new type of protection against particulate pollution. They are more discreet and comfortable than masks. The self-adherent films that cover the entire nostril (versus alternatives that must be inserted into the nose) are the most effective (approximately 90%). At Rs100/piece, they are more expensive than masks, and can only be used one time. Researchers at IIT Delhi are working on a lower-cost alternative.

AFP/Getty Images

How can I advocate for change?

Parents should demand that the Government of India develop an air pollution action plan for schools that includes installation of air purification systems that allow for fresh air intake to reduce the build-up of CO2. Next to the home, children spend the most time at school, where their health should be protected. Parents' demands for action has led to success elsewhere. Early in 2017, the Chinese Government agreed to install air purifiers in schools in Beijing, and other locales acted independently to do the same. The Singapore Ministry of Education follows official guidelines to close schools and minimize exposure and activities in very unhealthy AQI conditions. In India, certain schools in Delhi/NCR are installing purifiers and require that children wear masks for outdoor sports, but effective safeguards must be extended to all.

A number of groups in India are working to advocate for changes in policy that would reduce the sources of air pollution. Such efforts must be coordinated nationally, regionally, and throughout metro areas that border multiple states. Join or support a local or national group to make a difference for the future.

Resources to track air quality:

US Embassy: Get real-time data from the US Embassy monitoring stations in New Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Chennai, and Kolkata

OpenAQ: A non-profit organization that aggregates real-time, publicly-available data from Government and other research-grade source and stores historical data.

World Air Quality Index: A social enterprise project that aggregates real-time, publicly-available data, some sites differ from openaq.org; historical data not provided.

Central Pollution Control Board: Indian government's monitoring and data analysis body.

System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research- Indian government's weather and air quality monitoring stations.

Airveda App: A company that manufactures a low-cost, portable air quality monitor, and also publishes real-time data from its installed monitoring stations.

Twitter: Smokey Bot (http://airairair.org/): Access real-time data from any city in over five Indian languages by tweeting to this bot.

The opinions expressed in this post are the personal views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of HuffPost India. Any omissions or errors are the author's and HuffPost India does not assume any liability or responsibility for them.

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