Lungs bear the brunt of growing air pollution

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Lungs bear the brunt of growing air pollution

Tuesday, 04 October 2022 | surya Kant

Reports suggest alarming rise in air pollution in India and the consequent damage because of ailments related to bad air

Lungs as we know are the primary organs for respiration. They work tirelessly to supply oxygen to the body and expel carbon dioxide. Breathing also assists in the ability to speak and sing. Life begins with the first breath and ends with the last breath. It is important for the functioning of the body and all its organs up to the minutest cellular level. We breathe 10,000 liters of air daily to have 350 liters of oxygen. We can live without food for three weeks, without water for three days, but we can’t live without oxygen for more than three minutes. The Covid-19 pandemic revealed the importance of oxygen, lungs and lung specialists.  The respiratory system is continuously affected by exposure to various types of harmful agents or pollutants present in the environment. It is estimated that at least two billion people worldwide are exposed to toxic fumes produced by the combustion of biomass fuels. More than seven billion people breathe polluted air.

The respiratory system and lungs are the most affected human organs because of air pollution. Some common effects are cough, wheezing, shortness of breath, asthma, pneumonia and reduced lung capacity in children, airway obstruction, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer, and many more.

Air pollution is now considered the world's biggest environmental health threat, causing seven million deaths worldwide each year. Every year 17 lakh people die in India due to the air pollution. Air pollution exacerbates asthma, lung cancer, other lung diseases, while also aggravating many ailments such as heart diseases.

Almost all Indians breathe air that is in excess of World Health Organization guidelines. Its 2021 Report highlights that 11 of the 15 most polluted cities in Central and South Asia were from India. Around 16.7 lakh deaths in India were attributable to air pollution accounting for 17·8 per cent of the total deaths in the country in 2019. This means, three deaths per minute were attributable to air pollution in India.

Among risk factors for early death globally after high blood pressure, tobacco, and poor diet in 2019, air pollution takes the fourth spot. Globally, around 40 per cent of deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), 30 per cent of deaths from lower respiratory infections, and 19 per cent of deaths from lung cancer were attributable to air pollution. In India, lung diseases due to air pollution lead to around 45 per cent of deaths and 40 per cent of loss due to ill-health, disability, or early death. Immediate and proper action is needed to combat air pollution and bring about change.

The impact of respiratory diseases includes both chronic conditions like COPD and acute illnesses like pneumonia or lower respiratory tract infections. More than 2.5 million people died from pneumonia in 2019, making it one of the most prevalent acute illnesses and causes of death in the world. It is also the greatest cause of death for people over 65 and for children under the age of five, who are not newborns.

Additionally, SARS-CoV-2 mortality increased dramatically as a result of Covid-19 in adults who had underlying comorbidities, notably in those who developed respiratory disease or pneumonia, killing more than 6.3 million individuals, mostly from respiratory causes. In 2020, 1.5 million people died from TB, making it the most prevalent lethal infectious disease after the COVID-19 pandemic. Worldwide, more than 10 million individuals contracted TB, while 2.6 million people were affected in India. The onset of chronic respiratory disease may also be linked to such acute respiratory infections and other genetic-environmental interactions, with childhood illness establishing a developmental trajectory for poor health. Globally, an estimated 544.9 million people suffered from a chronic respiratory condition in 2017. In the world, COPD affects almost 200 million people, or four per cent of the population, and kills 3.2 million people annually, making it the third greatest cause of mortality. Asthma affects 350 million people worldwide (35 million in India) and is the most frequent chronic disease in children.

Children are particularly vulnerable because they are still growing and their lungs, brains, and immune systems are developing. Exposure to air pollution at a young age can hinder lung growth, inhibit brain development and increase the risk of conditions such as asthma. Asthmatic children's lungs and airways become easily inflamed, resulting in bothersome daily symptoms that interfere with play, sports, school, and sleep.

LiFE (Life For Environment) movement was launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on June 5, 2022. He said that LiFE’s vision is to live a lifestyle that is in tune with our planet and does not harm it. Those who lead such a life are known as "Pro-Planet People." Mission LiFE borrows from the past, operates in the present, and looks forward. Our lives are woven with the concepts of reduce, reuse, and recycle.

(The author is Professor & Head, Respiratory Medicine, King George’s Medical University, Lucknow)

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