According to the 2016 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, more than 5.5 million people worldwide die prematurely every year due to air pollution. India and China account for 55% of these deaths. This does not account for the millions of people who suffer from heart failure, strokes, asthma, lung damage, and myriad other diseases caused by the simple act of breathing.
As a Chinese-American who has lived and traveled extensively in China, and who currently resides in India, these findings are alarming, and sadly, not too surprising. Just last summer, traveling from Shanghai to Beijing on the train (a 1,200 kilometer ride along the eastern seaboard), I did not see the sun peeking through the smog even once. There are children in coal mining towns in China who have never seen the sun against a blue sky. How does one begin to fathom the psychological effects on a person who has never seen the sun?
My friends living in Beijing complain that their lives and those of their children are dictated by the Air Quality Index monitor. After years spent under the dome, of China’s smog, I am woefully accustomed to air pollution.
Then I moved to Delhi.
I flew right into the thick of Delhi winter smog this past December. Looking out that first evening, admiring the setting of the blood-orange sun behind what seemed to be a hill in the distance, I was filled with excitement to explore this vast and ancient metropolis. I drove past the “hill” the next day, and it turned out to be the city’s landfill, and it was constantly burning. My heart sank.
New to the city, I soaked everything in. The magnificent monuments to the kings, the tantalizing temples to the gods, the vibrant markets with mesmerizing colors and perfumes, long stretches of lush parks, along with exhaust, smoke, fumes and dust. It is difficult to fully appreciate the beauty of the city when you are gasping for breath. A nice morning auto-rick ride along the Yamuna river towards the Red Fort is a peaceful start to the day, until it is rudely interrupted by choking and lightheadedness from sitting in traffic.
PM2.5 is like that loud obnoxious guest that’s ruining the party for everyone. But we need not be held captive by this rude intruder - we can kick this unwanted guest out, if we all join in and help!
The World Health Organization has declared air pollution to be the world’s largest single environmental health risk, and called for a global plan to clean up the air. Countless initiatives are being carried out to combat air pollution. Lessons are learnt across the globe to collectively resolve this dangerous predicament. Transformations can happen. Cities like Los Angeles provide a remarkable glimpse into what a staunchly systematic and collaborative effort can do. The story of air pollution can have a happy ending.
There are small steps that we can all take together. I was elated to be introduced to Care for Air in Delhi. Care for Air is a team of volunteer professionals dedicated to raising public awareness of air pollution by advocating for cleaner and more breathable air in their communities, and ultimately, to affect change. We can kick this unwanted guest out if we all join in and help!
Ye is an international development professional. She has worked on public health issues relating to safe drinking water, malaria and HIV in China and Africa, and has spent the past 5 years working with journalists in China on improving the use of data in reporting, especially in the environment sector. Ye is an avid runner, and hopes to run a marathon one day in Delhi, when the air is cleaner.
Tell us your personal stories on how you battle air pollution in your daily life and in your community.