Masks have become a common sight in India over the last year. As the country enters peak smog season — witnessing heightened levels of air pollution — the masks now serve a dual purpose.
According to the Central Pollution Control Board’s air quality index (AQI) — consisting of a rating system from one to 500 that assess air pollution levels — cities across the nation recently saw air quality levels rise to dangerous levels. For the last two weeks, the AQI readings across New Delhi have consistently been recorded at levels over 400. Such high levels of pollution are not an outlier. These dangerous levels of pollution are reached on a yearly basis, leaving those in the cities and rural areas alike with a chronic underlying risk of a number of diseases.
Health Issues India recently covered a study that has placed air pollution as the number one risk of premature death in India. The comprehensive report on India’s air quality claims that India’s catastrophic air pollution issues were responsible for the deaths of more than 116,000 infants within the first month of life in 2019.
The report, entitled “State of Global Air 2020”, named India and sub-Saharan Africa as two of the world’s major air pollution hotspots. Long-term exposure to both outdoor and household air pollution was said to have contributed to over 1.67 million annual deaths from stroke, heart attack, diabetes, lung cancer, chronic lung diseases and neonatal diseases in India in 2019.
Studies have shown that even a short stay in a heavily-polluted Indian city is damaging for one’s health. For those who live within cities that frequently become smog chambers due to severe levels of air pollution, the chronic damage to health can reap a severe toll. Given the sheer levels of pollution in some areas, it is unsurprising that air pollution is now marked as the number one risk factor for all causes of death.
The smog season, coupled with a reduction in lockdown measures, potentially presents a dual crisis for public health. The severe levels of pollution present a consistent risk for public health, both in the short term and in terms of the risk of the development of a number of chronic conditions. In tandem with this, there is renewed opportunity for COVID-19 to spread, particularly given the crowds that festivals can draw. Caution must be advised, and a mask is ever more important.