What will happen if the high court order is followed in letter and spirit and all polluting vehicles are booted out? You will live four years longer. Babies will be born healthier. And Kolkata will no longer be the asthma and lung cancer capital.
Automobile engineers and experts are confident that air toxicity which is at alarming levels in Kolkata will dip sharply once the old smoke belchers are gone. "There can be only one outcome the city's air will become cleaner. There will be a perceivable drop in carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, polyaromatic hydrocarbons and other toxic elements," state pollution control board chief scientist Dipak Chakraborty said on Thursday, just two days before the blanket ban on pre-'93 commercial vehicles, including two-stroke non-LPG autorickshaws.
Kolkata's air quality is among the worst in the country, which gets even more dangerous in winter. If the government cracks down on 15-year-old vehicles, there will be a remarkable change from day 1 itself, said automobile engineer Prabir Kumar Bose, director of the National Institutes of Technology in Silchar and Agartala. "New vehicles have more fuel-efficient engines. Not only do they use less fuel for combustion, the process is more complete. Hence, there are less pollutants in the emission," he explained.
The vehicles that face the phase-out axe were built at a time when engines in India did not incorporate lean burn technology'. "They emit a lot of particulate matter because of incomplete combustion of fuel. Technology has since advanced manifold. Now, the amount of fuel to be fed into the combustion system is electronically controlled. It is much more efficient," Bose said.
City Livable Once More
"The epidemic-type situation, specially with regard to child asthma and lung cancer, will change. Kolkata will become a livable city once again with a better quality of life," said Centre for Environment director A K Ghosh, pointing to a National Cancer Research Institute-Calcutta University research that showed how lung cancer among non-smokers was at an alarming level in Kolkata due to vehicular pollution.
The study had conclusively shown that the so-called lifestyle diseases' heart attack, kidney failure, lung disorder, impotence and memory loss could also be triggered by air pollution. Researchers found evidence that foul air is responsible for rise in morbidity and mortality.
"Pollution is the catalyst that triggers cardiovascular and respiratory diseases in Indian cities. Urban stress, sedentary lifestyle and genetic disorder compound the risk, acting as a fatal cocktail," says Twisha Lahiri who was the lead author of the study.
The team had initially focused on high incidence of lung cancer in Kolkata (a shocking 18.4 per 100,000 against 11 per 100,000 in other metros). But it soon discovered that while lungs took the first hit (45% people in Kolkata have reduced lung function), nearly all vital organs were subsequently affected by pollutants.
Now Or Never
Ultra-fine particles (0.1 micron) slip into the bloodstream, and invade the heart, kidney, liver and brain.
"During autopsy in unnatural deaths, we have found that pollution affects the brain. It causes transient loss of memory, an Alzheimer's-like disease. Continuous exposure to high levels of pollution, as we have in Kolkata, could even effect the gene pool. Already, a lot of congenital problems are being detected among children in this city. Since it takes 15-20 years for a disease to manifest, it will take a while to know how bad we've been hit," said Lahiri's co-researcher Manas Ranjan Roy. Alarmingly, nearly 50% of children in Kolkata suffer from respiratory diseases like asthma among the highest in the country.
But doctors are confident that if the polluting vehicles stop plying, average life expectancy can go up by at least four years. "If we don't act today, life expectancy will dip further. Pollution is gnawing at life, corroding organs and even affecting babies in the womb. It is responsible for rise in pre-natal diseases," said Institute of Child Health professor and National Neonatal Forum of India secretary Joydeb Roy.
"An hour's stroll in Kolkata is equivalent to inhaling particulate matter and toxic gases in 20 cigarettes. If the foul air is cleaned up, healthier babies will be born and they will grow up as healthy children," said Roy.
Neurologist Sandip Chatterjee is confident that the increasing incidence of Alzheimer's and brain stroke will be checked once pollution subsides. Pointing to a Dutch experiment on the effect of diesel emission that was nearly 70% less polluting than the fuel in use in Kolkata, he said a half hour exposure had led to significant changes in the brain.
A series of experiments in Mexico City showed that pollution led to collection of peptide AB42 that causes Alzheimer's. In Taiwan's Kaohsiung, a study of 20,000 hospital admissions showed incidence of brain stroke was higher when the city recorded higher levels of pollution. In California, there were several cases of firefighters suffering from brain cancer due to inhaling diesel fumes.
"Since all these cities are less polluted than Kolkata, that is what is happening to our brains too. Hopefully, everyone will understand the need to cut down on pollution and act responsibly," Chatterjee said.
TNN 31 July 2009
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