Choking very air we breathe

A recent report by the United Nations Children’s agency, Unicef, released last week, has confirmed the worst fears of people living in polluted areas – that bad air is contributing to the death of many children even before they celebrate their fifth birthday. The report highlights the grim fact that air pollution is responsible for the deaths of nearly 600,000 children globally under the age of five every year, besides threatening the lives and futures of millions more every day. The impact of air pollution in cities such as Delhi is even worse, thanks to the heavy
density of particulate matter (PM).
The capital city has already been mentioned as one of the world’s most polluted cities by global institutions such as the World Health Organisation. The pollution predicament of the Delhiites has further worsened, thanks to the Diwali festival.
Diwali can longer be considered as a day of immeasurable joy and enjoyment for children. The festival is now considered the peak time for air pollution in a single given day in the entire year, and sadly children are exceedingly paying the price of the festivities with their health. The Unicef report, released a few days before the Diwali festival, underlines the peril faced by children due to spiralling levels of air pollution. According to the report, outdoor and indoor pollution are directly linked to respiratory diseases that account for almost one in 10 under-five deaths, making air pollution one of the leading dangers to children’s health.
Children are more susceptible than adults to air pollution as their lungs, brains and immune systems are still developing and their respiratory tracks are more permeable. Young children also breathe faster than adults, and take in more air relative to their body weight. The UN agency used satellite imagery to assess the impact of toxic air on children. Nearly two billion children across the world live in areas where outdoor air pollution, caused by factors such as vehicle emissions, heavy use of fossil fuels, dust and burning of waste, exceeds minimum air quality guidelines set by the WHO.
According to the report, South Asia has the largest number of children, at 620 million, living in areas where the air quality exceeds the minimum limits set by the WHO – followed by Africa, which has 520 million children.
The East Asia and Pacific region has 450
million children living in areas that exceed guideline limits.
In the best interests of the young lives in our cities, there is an urgent need to rein in the
pollution by establishing strict control on the use of fire crackers during Diwali every year. This is critical because the level of pollution is worsening every year; for instance, in some parts of Delhi the PM2.5 levels increased to 1,238 on the day of the festival, compared 435 a year earlier on Diwali. This astounding increase in PM levels is highly dangerous
as prolonged exposure to concentrations of PM 2.5 of 35 or above is associated with a 15 per cent higher long-term mortality risk. Keeping this in view the WHO too recommends that PM2.5 is kept below 10 as an
annual average.
The 2016 Diwali festival is being considered as the most polluting in the last three years. Given this alarming development, it is time for the Government and judicial bodies such as the National Green Tribunal to swing into action and bring about meaningful changes in how we celebrate the festival. It is pertinent that the celebration of Diwali must not be equated with the quantity of fire crackers used; the festival has its cultural and religious significance which must be upheld so that people’s sentiments are respected. But at the same time it is essential to increase the awareness among people on the ill-effects of crackers and bring in rules that ban arbitrary bursting of crackers. The authorities must
also designate a time and place for bursting crackers on Diwali.
The worsening air pollution during Diwali is further exacerbated due to cheap and sub-standard fire crackers that not only create immense noise but also pollute more. Competent Government authorities must regulate the rampant and unchecked inflow of cheap fire crackers into the Indian market. They must also conduct sample checks in the markets in order to maintain standards.
It is about time that India emulates developed countries like the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, Korea and Japan, which have strict laws where crackers cannot be used in residential areas and have to be used in controlled environments away from homes or any place where the security of any individual or animal or property may not be compromised. We owe at least this much to our future generations.
(The writer is an environmental journalist)

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