Why November Means Unsafe Air in India’s Capital: QuickTake Q&A

For the third straight November, thick toxic smog has enveloped India’s capital, New Delhi, forcing schools to shut down, halting traffic and sending residents scurrying to buy air purifiers and filtration masks. United Airlines briefly suspended service to the city, the Indian Medical Association declared a public health emergency, and India’s Supreme Court slapped a ban on selling fireworks ahead of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, the leader of the metropolis that’s home to 20 million people, has called New Delhi a "gas chamber." It’s not even India’s worst city for pollution.

1. What causes the smog?

Mostly it’s the burning of crop stubble, which continues unabated despite being banned in the surrounding states of Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan. Farmers in those regions traditionally clear their fields by burning in preparation for the winter season. Contributing to the pollution are vehicle and industrial emissions, road and construction dust, and fires lit by the poor for domestic use. Compounding the problem: The trough-like topography of the north Indian region means polluted air lingers in colder months.

2. What is the point of stubble burning?

After rice, wheat or other grain is harvested, the straw that remains is called stubble, and it must be removed before the next planting. It once was used as cattle feed, or to make cardboard, but harvesting by combine (rather than by hand) leaves 80 percent of the residue in the field as loose straw that ends up being burnt. Disposal of the stubble by means other than burning — such as plowing it into a fine layer of field cover — costs time and money, two things that farmers say they can’t afford.

3. How serious is the health risk?

The World Health Organization warns that increasing air pollution in many of the world’s poorest cities is driving up the risk of stroke, heart disease and lung cancer in vulnerable populations. The World Bank estimated that 1.4 million people in India died prematurely due to air pollution in 2013, the latest year for which data is available. (Pollution has worsened since then.) The most dire threat to humans is from PM 2.5, the fine, inhalable particles that lodge deep in the lungs, where they can enter the bloodstream. World Health Organization guidelines say exposure to PM 2.5 above 300 micrograms per cubic meter is hazardous. New Delhi’s recent readings have exceeded 1,000, as they did last year.

4. Why not enforce the ban on burning?

Farmers are a strong electoral constituency. Getting them to change their ways is no easy task, particularly as labor shortages bite and push up the costs of removing stubble manually.

5. Does the problem end when the burning stops?

The worst of the pollution typically dissipates as spring begins, but New Delhi’s air remains dirty all year. On every day in 2017, PM 2.5 readings exceeded the level deemed healthy by the WHO (up to 50 micrograms per cubic meter). And there were 39 days when readings topped 300, according to U.S. embassy data through Nov. 20.

6. Then what action is India taking?

New Delhi takes temporary measures, such as restricting traffic on alternate days or attempting to prevent the burning of waste. The federal government has accelerated the timeline for stricter emission rules; oil refiners plan a 288 billion-rupee ($4.4-billion) outlay on upgrades to comply with a local equivalent of European emission standards by April 2018.

7. Why hasn’t more been done?

The chaotic nature of Indian democracy doesn’t lend itself to coordinated action. Unlike in China, where the one-party government has directed a concerted nationwide anti-pollution drive, India’s various levels of government have failed to make meaningful progress on an issue that sprawls across political jurisdictions run by rival parties. At the same time, pollution hasn’t become as important an issue at the ballot box as, say, inflation or employment.

8. Where else in India is pollution a serious problem?

India accounted for 19 of the 35 worst-polluted cities in the world, as measured by PM 2.5, in WHO’s 2016 rankings. The Indian cities of Gwalior and Allahabad ranked second and third, behind only the Iranian city of Zabol, which is beset by dust storms. New Delhi, ranked 11th, was behind Saudi Arabia’s Riyadh for most polluted capital city.

9. What’s the impact on the economy?

The World Bank in 2013 estimated the annual cost of environmental degradation in India at $80 billion. According to a study by the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, pollution-related illnesses drag down productivity and reduce annual economic output by as much as 2 percent in developing economies.

10. What can India do?

To start, it could implement measures it’s already approved. That means enforcing the ban on burning crop stubble, holding to stricter emissions targets for 2020 and forcing construction sites to stick to rules on creating dust. Phasing out diesel cars and adopting cleaner fuels like compressed natural gas would also help, as would strengthening the public transport system to reduce the number of vehicles on the road.

The Reference Shelf

    Read more: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-11-23/why-november-means-unsafe-air-in-india-s-capital-quicktake-q-a

    Robert Mugabe removed as WHO goodwill ambassador after outcry

    World Health Organization chief says he has listened to concerns over appointment of Zimbabwean president

    The World Health Organization has removed the Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe, as a goodwill ambassador following outrage among donors and rights groups at his appointment.

    The WHOs director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who made the appointment at a high-level meeting on non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in Uruguay on Wednesday, said in a statement that he had listened to those expressing concerns.

    Over the last few days, I have reflected on my appointment of His Excellency President Robert Mugabe as WHO goodwill ambassador for NCDs in Africa. As a result I have decided to rescind the appointment, Tedros said in a statement posted on his Twitter account @DrTedros.

    The WHO boss had faced mounting pressure to reverse the decision, including from some of the leading voices in global public health.

    Tedros Adhanom (@DrTedros)

    Please see my statement rescinding the appointment of a Goodwill Ambassador for NCDs in Africahttps://t.co/dyxFzNAFqk

    October 22, 2017

    Several former and current WHO staff said privately they were appalled at the poor judgement and miscalculation by Tedros, elected the first African head of WHO in May.

    Mugabe was head of the African Union (AU) when the bloc endorsed Tedros – a former health and foreign minister of Ethiopia – over other African candidates for the top post, without any real regional contest or debate, they said.

    Mugabe, 93, is blamed in the West for destroying Zimbabwes economy and numerous human rights abuses during his 37 years leading the country as either president or prime minister.

    Britain said Mugabes appointment as a goodwill ambassador for non-communicable diseases in Africa was surprising and disappointing and that it risked overshadowing the WHOs global work. The United States, which has imposed sanctions on Mugabe for alleged human rights violations, said it was disappointed.

    He (Tedros) has to remember where his funding comes from, said one health official who declined to be identified.

    In announcing the appointment, Tedros had praised Zimbabwe as a country that places universal health coverage and health promotion at the centre of its policies to provide health care to all.

    But multiple critics noted that Mugabe, who is 93 and in increasingly fragile health, travels abroad for medical care because Zimbabwes health care system has been so severely decimated.

    The US ambassador to the United Nations during Barack Obamas administration, Samantha Power, tweeted: The only person whose health 93-yo Mugabe has looked out for in his 37 year reign is his own.

    Zimbabwes main opposition MDC party had called the appointment laughable and an insult.

    The US administration of President Donald Trump, which is already questioning financial support for some programmes of United Nations agencies, is WHOs largest single donor.

    The controversy came as WHO struggles to recover its reputation tarnished by its slowness in tackling the Ebola epidemic that killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa from 2014-2015 under Tedros predecessor Margaret Chan.

    The Geneva-based agency is currently grappling with crises including a massive cholera outbreak in Yemen that has infected some 800,000 people in the past year and an outbreak of plague in Madagascar that has killed nearly 100 people in two months.

    Combatting chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease linked to smoking, obesity and other risk factors are part of its permanent global agenda.

    Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/22/robert-mugabe-removed-as-who-goodwill-ambassador-after-outcry

    World Health Organization: Processed Meats Cause Cancer

    Very sad news for bacon lovers.

    The World Health Organization announced Monday that cured and processed meats like bacon, sausage, hot dogs and ham cause cancer, adding the foods to a top-tier list of carcinogenic substances that includes alcohol, cigarettes, asbestos, and arsenic.

    Processed meats can be bundled with these threatening carcinogens because of their link with bowel cancer, according to a report from WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, though their inclusion doesn’t mean that bacon causes cancer at the same rate as, say, smoking. 

    “For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal (bowel) cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed,” IARC epidemiologist Dr. Kurt Straif said in a statement.

    The agency estimates that a 50-gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increased the risk for bowel cancer by 18 percent. That’s about three slices of cooked bacon. 

    The report also links red meat to cancer. It classifies beef, lamb and pork as “probable” carcinogens in a second-tier list that also includes glyphosate, the active ingredient in many weedkillers.

    The findings, which are based on more than 800 studies, are already receiving pushback from meat industry groups that argue meat is part of a balanced diet and that the cancer risk assessments needs to expand to include risk in the context of lifestyle and environment. 

    “We simply dont think the evidence support any causal link between any red meat and any type of cancer,” said Shalene McNeill, executive director of human nutrition at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

    Such lifestyle and environmental risks have been studied extensively, however, and the IARC noted this broader context was included in the study: 

    In making this evaluation, the Working Group took into consideration all the relevant data, including the substantial epidemiological data showing a positive association between consumption of red meat and colorectal cancer and the strong mechanistic evidence. Consumption of red meat was also positively associated with pancreatic and with prostate cancer.

    Both processed and red meats have been linked with cancer in the past. A 2013 study from researchers at the University of Zurich found that consuming processed meats increased the risk of dying from both heart disease and cancer. In 2012, a review published in British Journal of Cancer linked meats like bacon and sausage to an increased risk of pancreatic cancer, a disease with particularly poor survival rates. It’s no secret that red meat is rife with bad cholesterol and fats that are tied to diabetes and heart disease. 

    Unfortunately, the average American consumes about 18 pounds of bacon each year. Our nation eats more red meat than most of the world, though consumption has begun to dip in the past couple of years. In 2014, chicken was more popular than beef for the first time in over 100 years, showing that the Food and Drug Administration’s recommendations for feeding on “leaner meats” may be making an impact on the national plate. 

    Read more: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/10/26/world-health-organization-processed-meats-cause-cancer_n_8388732.html

    Air pollution kills more people in the UK than in Sweden, US and Mexico

    WHO figures show people in Britain are more likely to die from dirty air than those living in some other comparable countries

    People in the UK are 64 times as likely to die of air pollution as those in Sweden and twice as likely as those in the US, figures from the World Health Organisation reveal.

    Britain, which has a mortality rate for air pollution of 25.7 for every 100,000 people, was also beaten by Brazil and Mexico and it trailed far behind Sweden, the cleanest nation in the EU, with a rate of 0.4.

    The US rate was 12.1 for every 100,000, Brazils was 15.8 and Mexicos was 23.5, while Argentina was at 24.6.

    The figures are revealed in the WHO World Health Statistics 2017 report, published on Wednesday, which says substantially reducing the number of deaths globally from air pollution is a key target.

    The report reveals outdoor air pollution caused an estimated 3 million deaths worldwide, most of these in low- and middle-income countries.

    Wealthy European nations had high levels of air pollution from fine particulate matter. The UK had an average of 12.4 micrograms of fine particulate pollutants (PM 2.5) for each cubic metre of air, which includes pollution from traffic, industry, oil and wood burning and power plants in urban areas. This is higher than the pollutant levels of 5.9 in Sweden, 9.9 in Spain and 12.6 in France. Germany had higher levels of particulate pollution than the UK at 14.4 and Polands was 25.4.

    Dr Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, said the report confirmed that deaths from air pollution were higher in the UK than many other comparable countries.

    She said: It is deeply tragic that around 3 million lives are cut short worldwide because the air we breathe is dirty and polluted. In the UK, air pollution is a public health crisis hitting our most vulnerable the hardest our children, people with a lung condition and the elderly.

    Yet, we are in the fortunate position of having the technology and resources to fix this problem. Its time to use what we have to sort this problem out as a matter of urgency and clean up our filthy, poisonous air. The next government needs to bring in a new Clean Air Act to protect the nations lung health.

    The worst countries for toxic air included India, where 133.7 deaths for every 100,000 people are attributed to air pollution, and Myanmar, where the rate was 230.6 deaths.

    WHO said: Outdoor air pollution is a major environmental health problem affecting everyone in developed and developing countries alike.

    Some 72% of outdoor air pollution-related premature deaths were due to ischaemic heart disease and strokes, while 14% of deaths were due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or acute lower respiratory infections, and 14% of deaths were due to lung cancer.

    The World Health Organisation said it was up to national and international policymakers to tackle the toxic air crisis

    Most sources of outdoor air pollution are well beyond the control of individuals and demand action by cities, as well as national and international policymakers in sectors like transport, energy, waste management, buildings and agriculture, the WHO said recently.

    Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/may/17/air-pollution-kills-more-people-in-the-uk-than-in-sweden-us-and-mexico