In my thirties, I had to change apartments frequently and I became an expert at assessing new homes. How far is the building from my office and can I walk to work? Does the bedroom window face the main gate? If yes, then you are sure to be woken late at night up by cars honking at the watchmen to open the gate. Is the building near an open drain? If yes, reject the apartment or you would have a much higher chance of getting Dengue and Malaria. After the 2005 floods, I started to notice if the building was in a low-lying area and hence prone to flooding. If I had to look for apartments now, I would add another criterion. How far is it from busy traffic junctions and other sources of air pollution?
Last year, my colleagues and I worked on How can every Indian breathe cleaner air? This piece was from a point of view of what the society as a whole could do but I came across information that is useful for individuals who live in cities with very high air pollution. So I have put together a few suggestions on what you could do to reduce the risk of ill health from dirty air. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list and I welcome you to give your tips and suggestions below.
But first, is Air Pollution a serious issue? Or,
Should I be worried about Air Pollution at all?
Short answer, yes. Very worried.
New evidence keeps coming up on linkage of air pollution with many diseases and not just those of lungs. A recent report from Lancet suggested that there is a strong causal association between air pollution and Heart disease and Hypertension! Our own Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has suggested that air pollution (Including indoor air pollution) is a bigger risk factor than Tobacco and Alcohol!
More worryingly, most of the robust studies on these linkages are from the Western world where the pollution levels are much lower than that seen in India. At our much higher levels the impact could be much worse.
Hence, our first recommendation was that if you live in one of the more polluted cities in India, leave. However, if you cannot leave than do as much as you can to reduce your exposure to air pollution.
Reducing exposure to Air Pollution
Ambient air pollution is not the same as your exposure to that pollution. To take a simple example, a measurement station at a busy traffic junction would record high level of many pollutants. And yet, you can reduce your exposure to these pollutants simply by not staying at the junction more than necessary. We have very little control on ambient air pollution but have more control on our exposure to it.
Limiting exposure starts with choosing where you live. Make sure that your building is as far away from traffic junctions and main arterial roads. In the building choose apartments that face away from sources of air pollution. It makes sense not to live anywhere close to a landfill — as the garbage in landfill frequently catches fire. Make sure that your home is not near any of the common sources of air pollution such as power plants, brick kilns, factories (including small factories located in slums) and construction sites.
Construction sites are a very big source of pollution in a rapidly growing India and it makes sense to changes homes if a Metro or even an apartment complex is being constructed next to you.
Do note that there is a limit to how much you can control your exposure. If you stay in Delhi and farmers in North Indian states start burning crop stubble in October — November and your fellow citizens burst crackers, the already high pollution levels will spike further. If at that time, the atmospheric conditions cause a fog, then the poison in the air will be impossible to avoid. Definitely use an indoor air purifier and facemasks in such situations. If an air purifier reduces your exposure even for a third of your twenty-four day while you sleep, it is beneficial.
Pro tip: Many of the Air Purifiers are a simple combination of filters (most importantly a filter called the HEPA filter) and an exhaust fan. The filters need to be replaced periodically and many companies design their products such that the filters are of a particular size and shape. Why? Because you have to go back to the same company to buy the filter and of course, it is expensive. Think cheap razors and expensive razor blades! So if you aren’t too fussed on how your purifier looks, you can get a filter and fan strapped together from the local market and that may work out much cheaper in the long run!
Are you someone who likes to exercise in the open? If yes, then another way of reducing your exposure would be to check the pollution levels in your locality and choosing your exercise time and route accordingly! Here are links (Scroll to sub heading ‘Actual Pollution levels”) for checking the pollution levels in your area.
Reducing the ambient pollution in your area
Here is a summary of the main sources of pollution and suggested solutions.
It is very difficult for most individuals to implement most of these solutions. A citizen of Delhi has very little power over a factory situated in NOIDA or over a farmer burning crop stubble in Haryana. Come to think of it, even the Chief Minister of Delhi has limited power in such situations!
However, there is still something that you can do in your neighborhood that would reduce your exposure to the poison in the air. Some measures
- Encourage your building or your society to grow trees and creepers as green curtains especially between your place of residence and a source of pollution like a busy road.
- Help provide electric heaters to people whose work may force them to stay outdoors at night for example, watchmen. When it gets cold they may burn wood or worse plastic waste and negatively impact their health and yours.
- This report suggested that local governments have started implementing rules for construction and for storage of construction material. Help ensure that the rules are followed for construction projects in your area.
Be aware and spread awareness
If all the preceding paragraphs sound like too little then it is because it is too little. The power of an individual to attack a collective problem like air pollution is limited. The society as a whole needs to act and the first step is understanding the problem. Click here to quickly and sharply increase your understanding of the issue. Check out these resources if you want to dive deeper into the subject.
(Yogesh Upadhyaya is one of the founders of AskHow India. Blogs are personal views.)