Indian Air Pollution Brutal Reminder of Environmental Concerns

public health emergency declared over dangerous levels of air pollution

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

New Delhi has declared a state of emergency over its severe air pollution, Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported. One report claimed that simply spending a day breathing in northern India was equivalent to smoking 33 cigarettes a day. Human health is strongly linked to the planet’s health.

Severe Delhi Air Pollution as seen from a tall building
High levels of air pollution as measured by Air Quality Index ratings allow government officials to declare health emergencies to notify the public of dangerous air pollutants. Photo by Abhisheklegit / Shutterstock

According to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation article, pollution in New Delhi reached an all-year high earlier this month, leading officials to declare a public health emergency. “Aside from the harm it was doing to the lungs of some 40 million people living in the capital region, the smog was so bad more than 30 flights were diverted from Delhi Airport due to poor visibility,” it said. In terms of the Air Quality Index (AQI) rating, which measures air molecules for pollutants, “anything above 400 on the AQI poses a risk for people with respiratory illness and can also affect even those with healthy lungs,” it also stated. New Delhi’s AQI rating on November 4 was more than twice that. The air pollution in India gives us a reminder that our health is tied to the planet’s health.

Pollution, Minus the Politics

Much of the cause of India’s air pollution is farmers’ crop stubble burning, which the Australian Broadcasting Corporation article said constitutes 44 percent of current air pollution in north India. Another major cause of pollution in developed nations comes from cars—and we’re only making things worse.

“Between 1960 and 1990 the number of people working outside their counties increased over 200 percent,” Dr. Mimi Guarneri, board-certified cardiologist and physician, said. “We think it’s good to move out of the cities to get more of nature and green land and trees, but this has resulted in vehicle miles traveled increasing 250 percent from 1960 to 1997.”

Dr. Guarneri said that urban air pollution is linked to an estimated 1.3 million deaths per year annually and one of the largest contributors to cardiovascular disease. It’s no surprise that breathing in air that contains the thick, black exhaust fumes from cars and trucks isn’t healthy for us, but these numbers are staggering.

During the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996, Dr. Guarneri said, an experiment was done in which the local government decided to limit automobile use. “Automobile use was reduced by 22.5 percent, but what was so insightful is that someone was measuring hospital admissions for asthma. And what they found was asthma admissions to the Atlanta ER decreased 41 percent.”

Agriculture and Air Quality

India’s crop stubble burning isn’t the only agricultural factor harming the environment.

“The way we farm is having a serious impact on the environment,” Dr. Guarneri said. “The UN Food and Agricultural Organization in 2006 stated that livestock production contributed 18 percent of world greenhouse gas emissions. This percentage is more than transportation’s contribution. More recent research suggests that the livestock contribution may be as high as 51 percent of all greenhouse emissions.”

Dr. Guarneri also said that another study at the University of Chicago showed that switching to a vegan diet with the same number of calories as a typical American diet would prevent carbon dioxide emissions by 1,485 kg. She added, “The difference obtained by that change of diet exceeds that of an individual switching from a Toyota Camry to the hybrid Toyota Prius.”

Dr. Mimi Guarneri contributed to this article. Dr. Guarneri is board-certified in cardiology, internal medicine, nuclear medicine, and holistic medicine. She earned her medical degree from The State University of New York Downstate Medical Center, where she graduated first in her class.