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A short stay in an Indian city is unhealthy?

Air pollution in India’s cities is unhealthy: this fact goes without saying. But just how unhealthy is it?

Smog overhangs India's urban National Capital Region. High levels of air pollution is driving the country's high rates of asthma - suggestive of a wider environmental health crisis: Copyright: amlanmathur / 123RF Stock Photo
Smog overhangs India’s urban National Capital Region. High levels of air pollution is driving the country’s high rates of asthma – suggestive of a wider environmental health crisis.

Recent evidence from New York University (NYU) School of Medicine study indicates that even a short stay in a polluted city is damaging to health. For Indians living out their daily lives in seven of the world’s ten most polluted cities, long-term exposure could mean nothing less than an early grave.

The study was conducted on a US-based population of healthy, young adults who had recently travelled internationally. Researchers analysed their pollution-related coughing and breathing difficulties, and recovery times upon returning home.

Most of the trial participants were visiting family in cities with consistently high levels of air pollution. Indian cities including Ahmedabad and New Delhi were common locations. Others included as Rawalpindi in Pakistan and Xian in China.

Researchers targeted six measurements of lung and heart function, both before leaving and upon their return. They found that even a short stay in a polluted city reduced measures of lung function by an average of six percent, with some participants recording a decrease as high as twenty percent.

Some participants reported as many as five symptoms related to inhalation of polluted air such as breathing difficulties, sore throats or a cough. Two participants sought out medical treatment on their return. Blood pressure remained unchanged during their travel, indicating short term stays in a pollution-heavy environment primarily affects the lungs.

It was reported that all participants health returned to normal after leaving the polluted cities, though longer-term studies on the short-term damage are currently lacking.

“What travellers should know is that the potential effects of air pollution on their health are real and that they should take any necessary precautions they can,” said MJ Ruzmyn Vilcassim, a postdoctoral fellow at NYU School of Medicine.

Pollution has a number of well-documented health effects. Lung problems are among the most common, but it has been noted to worsen heart health, potentially increase the risk of dementia, and increase the risk of diabetes. As further research is conducted, more illnesses are being attributed to the effects of pollution.

For even just a short stay in a polluted area to have recordable effects on health, the prospects for Indians who live in such cities is catastrophic. Millions of individuals are born and live their entire lives in India’s urban metropolises. In the cases of the poverty-stricken who cannot afford to travel, some may never even leave the city. This is to say nothing of the exposure to pollution in rural areas, which account for the majority of pollution-related deaths in India. This means that air pollution must be addressed, as more and more research indicates that it is perhaps the most devastating singular effect on India’s health.

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