Human Health Impact of Air Pollution in Kathmandu Valley

– Sandhya Regmi

(Founder President, BH Foundation)

(Published in the KTM Post on September 25, 2015)

Air pollution’s human-health impact can be detrimental and irreversible, whether the pollution is sourced to industrial accident or normal operation.

Obviously, industrial accidents can have devastating health effects. In what is considered as the world’s worst industrial disaster, Bhopal’s methyl-isocyanate gas leakage in 1984 killed over 8000 and injured over 500,000. The Chernobyl nuclear power plant’s catastrophic accident in 1986 released radioactive particles into much of Europe’s atmosphere with eventual death toll of 4000 and radiation exposure to 586,000. Even the high-tech country’s residents are not immune. Fukushima nuclear disaster of Japan in 2011 took the lives of 1232 and is feared to cause cancer to thousands.

The effects can be no less even if the industries purport to operate normally. Donora Pennsylvania’s 43% of the total population became ill and 20 died in 1948 due to excess of sulphurdioxide and particulate matter in the ambient air. In London, thick fog and temperature inversion killed 4000 in 1952. King’s College reported that 9,500 Londoners had their lives shortened by air pollution in 2010, accounting for a fifth of all deaths in the city that year. The effect was deadlier where traffic was heaviest. In Sao Paulo, Brazil, air pollution killed 4,655 people in 2011, contributing to over twice as many deaths that year than both AIDS (874) and breast cancer (1,277) combined. Quite recently in September 8, 2015 an unseasonal suffocating sandstorm hit Lebanon leading to 5 deaths and 750 cases of asphyxiation (shortness of breath).

Throughout the world, hundreds of such incidents with alarming levels of air pollution are compromising human health. Almost a decade ago, WHO had estimated that annually about 3 million die prematurely due to air-pollution-induced health complications, out of which 30% die due to lung cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases; and out of these, 150,000 deaths reportedly occur in south Asia alone. In a new report, WHO estimates annual air-pollution related death at 7 million, comprising one in eight of total global deaths. This finding more than doubles previous estimates and confirms that air pollution is now the world’s largest single environmental health disaster.

The susceptibility of lung cancer—the primary culprit tied with air pollution —is higher in non-smokers. Fine particles inhaled from polluted air injure the lungs through inflammation and damage DNA. A recent research by Harvard School of Public Health reveals that non-smokers living in highly air-polluted areas are roughly 20% more likely to die from lung cancer than people who live with cleaner air.

Alarming Scenario

The people of Kathmandu are no exception. Health impacts of air pollution depend mainly upon type and concentration of pollutant, exposure duration, and age and health condition of a person.

Probably in first comprehensive study of its kind, World Bank had published health impacts of PM10 (annual average concentration of particulates of size 10 micron or smaller) in Kathmandu. It estimated 84 excess mortality, about 19,000 cases of asthma, and hundreds of cases of bronchitis and other health-related disorders due to the air pollution.

Sickening Agents Clean Energy Nepal had investigated the trend of air-pollution related diseases in the valley by analyzing data of in-patents admitted over the previous 10 years in Kathmandu’s 3 largest public hospitals, namely, Bir Hospital, Teaching Hospital, and Patan Hospital. The results indicated that, in average, number of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) patients nearly doubled over past decade, with an increase by about 30 to 50% in winter season, which is explained by the thermal inversion phenomenon in the cup shaped Kathmandu exacerbating the air pollution problems during winter.

Further, case studies on child labours and traffic police exposed to vehicular pollution, and on children and adults living in the vicinity of brick kilns indicated that large proportion of those individuals exposed to air pollution had remarkably high degree of air-pollution-related health disorders such as bronchitis, asthma and COPD.

The pollutants believed to be dangerous to human health in KTM valley, apart from PM10, are namely sulphurdioxide, nitrogendioxide and carbonmonoxide —all emitted by vehicles and industries. Arguably, the vehicular emission is the biggest culprit, without the reduction of which the toxicity and the carcinogens in the ambient air of Kathmandu will ever increase. Oxides of Nitrogen (NOx) are extremely dangerous to human health causing shortness of breath, wheezing, asthma attack and chest pain which can even lead to heart attack; and the worst thing is they react with the VOCs (volatile organic compounds) in the presence of sunlight to produce tropospheric ozone the so-called ‘bad ozone’ which is the major ingredient of photochemical smog—one of the most dangerous air pollutants.

Breathworthy Kathmandu

None of 3.5 million Kathmanduties is immune to air-pollution-induced health hazards. With ever increasing numbers of vehicles and factories in the valley, the breathing exercise is getting only more hazardous.

Having diagnosed the cause, in theory, the underlying solution is simple. Ban all sub-standard vehicles, substandard fuels, and polluting factories in the valley. Promote environment-friendly mass transports with efficient engines that consume less fuel, or operate on electric or solar power. Plant more trees that absorb carbon emissions. Monitor the pollution level daily, to measure the progress. And if need be, implement air pollution control technologies—in which the harmful pollutants are converted to harmless or less objectionable forms—through mechanisms such as absorption, combustion, condensation and chemical treatment with the use of cyclones, electrostatic precipitators, filters and scrubbers.

To make the valley breathworthy, all of us can and must contribute to that end. General public, industries, NGOs, INGOs, media, watchdogs, and the State. Obviously, those who are at higher hierarchy in the pyramid must be prepared to discharge proportionally heavier duties.

© 2021 Buddha Harmony Foundation. All rights reserved.

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