Toxic air and smoking: the two silent killers

Our environment is in a continuous stress due to innumerable threats posed by natural and anthropogenic pressures. The air we breathe is noxious due to toxic pollutants and tobacco smoke and are one of the greatest recognised environmental problems poisoning human and other life forms. The burning of fossil fuels, wood and environmental waste, tobacco smoke, vehicular pollution, industrial emissions, dusty roads, agricultural activities, biological molecules, and air conditioner gases are other important sources of air pollutants. Kashmir valley is not an exception to these sources and air quality here has also deteriorated to a large extent putting people at a greater risk of pollution related and tobacco consumption diseases and deaths. Air pollution either outdoor (ambient air pollution) or indoor (household air pollution) is a “global health hazard’ and a “silent (invisible) killer” declared by WHO – the world watch dog of health. Therefore, poor air quality kills people indiscriminately, however, the air quality index based on the concentration of some major air pollutants varies greatly among the countries, being poorest in low and middle income countries.

Evidences have accumulated over the period of time that air pollution may be damaging every cell, tissue and organ in the human body. The various air pollutants in ultra-filter form are an ultimate cause of severe systemic inflammations and disorders while being transported by the blood stream through the body. Some of the prominent disorders reported are brain diseases (dementia, strokes, reduced intelligence), poor sleep, type 2 diabetes, liver problems, brittle bones, heart ailments (mainly heart attacks due to narrowing of arteries and weakening of muscles), lung diseases (asthma, emphysema, lung cancer), severe fertility problems, miscarriage, teratogenic effects, skin damage, allergies, etc. However, it is not only humans which are susceptible to the harmful effects of air pollutants, but plants and animals are equally affected by the air pollution. Overall, the direct and indirect effects on all ecosystems by air pollutants ultimately influences the functioning of whole flora and fauna although man is concerned only for himself.

Let us know how air pollution including tobacco smoke are an invisible and silent killers. Every year air pollution causes 1. 4 million deaths from stroke, 2.4 million deaths due to cardiovascular diseases, and 1.8 million deaths due to lung diseases and cancer. As per the WHO statistics, nine out of ten people breathe polluted air, is the major cause of non-communicable deaths in human (fifth leading cause of human death) and has shortened life expectancy on an average by 20 months around the globe. Worldwide 4.2 million deaths per year result alone due to outdoor air pollution. The indoor pollution (household exposure to smoke due to burning of wood, coal, charcoal, biomass etc.) cause 3.8 million deaths every year. Further, tobacco smoke is the worst form of indoor air pollution in recreational areas, work places and residential areas and on average causes around 8 million deaths/year. It contains thousands of chemicals, significant number of them are toxic, cause chronic respiratory diseases and some are known cause of lung cancer in human. Undoubtedly smoking kills but not everyone who smoke. There is evidence that half of the users of tobacco get killed and three fourths of these deaths happen in low and middle income countries alone.

This year much is going to happen worldwide to find solutions for making air cleaner and healthier. First to happen is the “world no tobacco day” on 31st May to raise awareness about the tobacco use and its harmful effects on the human health. This year’s focus is on “tobacco and lung health”. Although smoking is the single biggest lifestyle factor affecting development of lung cancer, toxic air due to air pollution is also strongly linked to its development. Therefore, air pollution together with tobacco smoke are one of the biggest public health threats responsible for heaviest human deaths (average of 7 million & 8 million deaths/year respectively). The next to follow will be “world environment day” on 5th June this year will be celebrated with the theme of air pollution and will urge governments, communities, industries and individuals to put in place the concrete solutions for improving the air quality worldwide. It will be followed by celebration of “clean air day” on 20th June as a global action plan.

So what we need or what can we do to breathe healthy air. We need best policies, regular public awareness programmes, timely action plans, working initiatives and positive follow ups to reduce or minimise air pollution and discourage tobacco use at every level. We should shift to more use of renewable sources of energy, electric cars, prefer walking and cycling over fossil fuel burning transport to lessen the burden of toxic air pollutants. Our roads badly need green muffler (rows of trees on sides) to safeguard our environment from dangerous effects of pollutants. Further, our responsibility should also be to plant more trees in residential areas and open fields to improve the air quality for a better health and balanced ecosystem functioning. In this direction, everyone has a role and responsibility to ensure clean, fresh and disease free air for every living organism.

The writer teaches Zoology at the Islamia College of Science & Commerce, Srinagar.