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The poisons you breathe

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

When the pollution levels in your city match those of a coal mining and thermal power hub, you can bet things are seriously wrong, says K Raj

Consider this. Chandrapur, in North Eastern Maharashtra, is the hub of coal mining and home to a coal-fired super thermal power plant generating 3,340 MW of electricity. Given this, it should come as no surprise that the city ranks 62nd among the most polluted cities in the world.

What should come as a surprise is that amchi Mumbai matches Chandrapur when it comes to levels of Suspended Particulate Matter with a diameter of 2.5
micrometer (PM2.5 according to technical jargon and measured in terms of micrograms per cubic meter). Both cities have PM2.5 levels of 64.

When the pollution levels in your city match those of a coal mining and thermal power hub, you can bet things are seriously wrong. This is further underscored by the fact that a World Health Organisation (WHO) report identifies Mumbai as the fourth most polluted mega-city in terms of PM10. (Suspended Particulate Matter with a diameter of 10 micrometer).

And this is despite the fact that as a coastal city, Mumbai has a natural advantage as, generally speaking, the sea breeze tends to clear up pollution over coastal cities. But the growth of high-rises in Mumbai has meant that today the penetration of sea breezes is much lower in terms of the area covered than, say, two decades ago.

The WHO report had some alarming figures to quote. It said that nine out of 10 people in the world breathe air containing high levels of pollutants. Updated estimations reveal an alarming death toll of seven million people every year caused by ambient (outdoor) and household air pollution.

“Air pollution threatens us all, but the poorest and most marginalised people bear the brunt of the burden,” Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General, WHO said at the time of the release of the report.

WHO recognises that air pollution is a critical risk factor for Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs), causing an estimated one-quarter (24%) of all adult deaths from heart disease, 25% from stroke, 43% from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and 29% from lung cancer.

The WHO database collects annual mean concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5). PM2.5 includes pollutants such as sulfate, nitrates and black carbon, which pose the greatest risks to human health. WHO air quality recommendations call for countries to reduce their air pollution to annual mean values of 20 μg/m3 (for PM10) and 10 μg/m3 (for PM2.5).

“Many of the world’s megacities exceed WHO’s guideline levels for air quality by more than five times, representing a major risk to people’s health,” says Dr Maria Neira, Director of the Department of Public Health, Social and Environmental Determinants of Health, at WHO.

Major sources of air pollution from particulate matter include inefficient use of energy by households, industry, the agriculture and transport sectors, and coal-fired power plants. In some regions, sand and desert dust, waste burning and deforestation are additional sources of air pollution. Air quality can also be influenced by natural elements such as geographic, meteorological and seasonal factors.

Air pollution is as much a policy issue to be addressed by governments as it is an issue crying out for individual action. Remember, Mumbai is our city and all of us have an equal responsibility to make its air more breathable.

Here is what all of us can do to help reduce air pollution in Mumbai.

  • Conserve energy—remember to turn off lights, computers and electric appliances when not in use.
  • Use energy-efficient light bulbs and appliances.
  • Limit driving by carpooling, using public transportation, biking and walking.
  • Combine errands for fewer trips.
  • Keep your vehicle well-tuned and maintained. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions on routine maintenance, such as changing the oil and filters, and checking tire pressure and wheel alignment.
  • Avoid excessive idling of your car/bike.
  • When using an air conditioner in the night, ensure that the ‘Sleep Mode’ is activated.
  • Plant a garden, even if it is a small one, in your balcony.
  • Try and plant at least one tree every year in your locality and look after it.

Pollutants in the air

Particulate matter (PM)
PM is a common proxy indicator for air pollution. It affects more people than any other pollutant. The major components of PM are sulfate, nitrates, ammonia, sodium chloride, black carbon, mineral dust and water. It consists of a complex mixture of solid and liquid particles of organic and inorganic substances suspended in the air. While particles with a diameter of 10 microns or less, (≤ PM10) can penetrate and lodge deep inside the lungs, the even more health-damaging particles are those with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less, (≤ PM2.5). PM2.5 can penetrate the lung barrier and enter the blood system.

Health Effects
Chronic exposure to particles contributes to the risk of developing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as of lung cancer.

WHO Permissible Limits
PM2.5 -- 10 μg/m3 annual mean, 25 μg/m3 24-hour mean
PM10 -- 20 μg/m3 annual mean, 50 μg/m3 24-hour mean

Ozone (O3)
Ozone at ground level—not to be confused with the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere—is one of the major constituents of photochemical smog. It is formed by the reaction with sunlight (photochemical reaction) of pollutants such as nitrogen oxides (NOx) from vehicle and industry emissions and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted by vehicles, solvents and industry. As a result, the highest levels of ozone pollution occur during periods of sunny weather.

Health Effects
Excessive ozone in the air can have a marked effect on human health. It can cause breathing problems, trigger asthma, reduce lung function and cause lung diseases.

WHO Permissible Limits
100 μg/m3 8-hour mean

Nitrogen dioxide (NO2)
As an air pollutant, NO2 has several correlated activities. NO2 is the main source of nitrate aerosols, which form an important fraction of PM2.5 and, in the presence of ultraviolet light, of ozone. The major sources of anthropogenic emissions of NO2 are combustion processes (heating, power generation, and engines in vehicles and ships).

Health Effects
Epidemiological studies have shown that symptoms of bronchitis in asthmatic children increase in association with long-term exposure to NO2. Reduced lung function growth is also linked to NO2 at certain concentrations.

WHO Permissible Limits
40 μg/m3 annual mean
200 μg/m3 1-hour mean

Sulphur Dioxide (SO2)
SO2 is a colourless gas with a sharp odour. It is produced from the burning of fossil fuels (coal and oil) and the smelting of mineral ores that contain sulphur. The main anthropogenic source of SO2 is the burning of sulphur-containing fossil fuels for domestic heating, power generation and motor vehicles.

Health Effects
SO2 can affect the respiratory system and the functions of the lungs, and causes irritation of the eyes. Inflammation of the respiratory tract causes coughing, mucus secretion, aggravation of asthma and chronic bronchitis and makes people more prone to infections of the respiratory tract. Hospital admissions for cardiac disease and mortality increase on days with higher SO2 levels. When SO2 combines with water, it forms sulfuric acid; this is the main component of acid rain which is a cause of deforestation.

WHO Permissible Limits
20 μg/m3 24-hour mean
500 μg/m3 10-minute mean

BreatheLife is a joint campaign led by the World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations Environment and the Climate & Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) to mobilise cities and individuals to protect our health and planet from the effects of air pollution.

It combines public health and climate change expertise with guidance on implementing solutions to air pollution in support of global development goals.

The campaign seeks to create change by
Connecting Cities
Provide a platform for cities to share best practices and demonstrate progress in their journey to meeting WHO air quality targets by 2030

Increasing Monitoring
Work with municipalities to expand monitoring efforts that can keep citizens informed and facilitate more sustainable urban development

Accelerating Solutions
Build demand for new solutions that are working and support municipalities in effectively implementing them in their own cities

Empowering Individuals
Educate people about the burden air pollution poses to our health and our climate and provide meaningful ways to take action both locally and globally
For more information and how you can contribute to controlling and reducing air pollution log on to www.

The Clean Air Marathon
To create heightened awareness among the world’s population on the dangers of air pollution and what each individual can do to control it, the BreatheLife Campaign has launched a ‘Clean Air Marathon’, this month.

The idea is to get each one of us to walk, cycle or take public transport instead of driving our vehicles for the equivalent of 42 kms (26 miles) this month.

The target is to try and reduce car use by 7000 million kms for the 7 million lives lost to air pollution each year.

‘We need to take ownership’ 
Mumbaikars respond to the issue of air pollution and what we can do to tackle the problem

"Major sources of air pollution in Mumbai seem to be construction-related pollution, vehicular emissions, and the open burning of garbage. I'm not sure we can do much about construction-related pollution right now but other obvious measures would be increasing our green cover and improving our public transport for enhanced convenience and to accommodate higher volumes. Better waste management and coordination with our informal recycling economy (such as kabbadiwalas) will help reduce the burning of garbage. However, we as individuals also need to take ownership of the problem, which means we should be using public transport, carpooling, cycling, or walking when possible, and we should also reduce our overall consumption and waste."
Dr. Gauri Pathak, Homi Bhabha Fellow and medical anthropologist

The root cause for any problem in India is the rising population. We first need to tackle that issue and simultaneously work on the problems plaguing the country which are invariably linked to population. As for the methods to curb the pollution in the cities, we first need to sensitise the population at large. Constant reminders are required to the already aware citizens to adopt concepts like carpooling, cycle to work, public transport. Strict rules on emissions from refineries and factories should be thought about by the Government and its implementation should be done. We are forgetting that air is the most essential element to be alive. It's high time we think about the present, if not the future.
Archana Thakur, Spanish language professional

If we more plant trees, reduce plastic usage and  the regular use of cars,  it helps reduce the air pollution. I think this is the duty of every citizen of India.
Bhushan Telang,  theatre artiste

We need active involvement of citizens in understanding how to reduce pollution and strict government policies on development
Urmi Palan, Retired Vice-Principal

Honestly it’s not only Sion/Matunga areas that are polluted, it’s the whole of Mumbai that is polluted. Each and every lane and road is dug up. We are just approximately 20 – 25 days away from the rainy season and  the work hasn’t even started yet. Because of that, there is a lot of traffic and that too causes air pollution.

It’s not only roads, but even several buildings that are getting redeveloped. Thanks to people who are okay cutting down trees and making spacious buildings with amenities, or widening roads, we hardly get some shade from trees.

The future generation will really suffer in terms of  disease. We are suffering now but we are old and hardly have much time to live, but we really hope our children don’t suffer from illness due to pollution.  
Subhash Atara, resident of Sion

As told to Smita Rao

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