By Henry Ehrlich
Normally when I have to call my bank’s customer service department I am in a state of what used to be called “high dudgeon.” I.e. a state of extreme indignation. The exception was for a period of about six months several years ago when I was working on a book about sleep disorders. I would call the 800 number during my business day and it would be connected to a representative working in the wee hours of the morning in Hyderabad or Lahore. To their surprise and delight, after politely transacting my business, I would ask them about their experience with shift-work disorder, which afflicts people who are compelled to stay up all night when they have evolved to sleep. Nurses, policemen, short-order cooks, jazz musicians, and many other occupations suffer from this syndrome, which is characterized by day and night sleepiness, tendency to overweight, workplace and and non-working accents, and many other symptoms. Outsourcing of call centers to India, where workers had picked up the customer service functions previously done by Americas at fractions of the cost, had spread the epidemic and it was covered frequently by the Times of India [TOI].
With rapid industrialization, TOI coverage has now shifted to another epidemic—asthma. Asthma is not new to India, possibly because of triggers like the burning of agricultural waste left over from the previous growing season. For the past 170 years, thousands of Indians have trekked to Hyderabad to ingest live fish filled with a yellow medicine that is thought to relieve their symptoms.
But air pollution associated with construction, power generation and vehicle traffic has reached crisis proportions. An item showed up in my Google alert over the weekend, which said, among other things, that one in every three children in Delhi has impaired lung function because of pollution. “More and more patients who have never gotten asthma before are coming to us with this disease. This can be only attributed to the rising levels of pollution in the air,” according to Dr. Ujjwal Parikh, a pulmonologist, using logic that would make sense everywhere but in the U.S. coal states.
Among the remedies and precautions taken: The National Green Tribunal has taken steps like banning diesel vehicles older than 10 years from entering the capital and making burning of waste a punishable offense. Dr. Parikh recommends against unnecessary automobile travel during peak traffic hours and only with the car window up. “While traveling in a car, the air conditioner should be put on the re-circulate mode so that the outside air does not come in,” he said. Another doctor recommends wearing a mask or a wet handkerchief for protection. Sensible precautions.
The costs of India’s air quality are overwhelming if only for the magnitude of its population. One estimate shows that 660 million lives will be cut short by about three years, or some two billion years altogether, if they don’t find alternatives to fossil fuels to power economic growth. Thirteen Indian cities are now on the World Health Organization’s list of the 20 most polluted. Ninety-nine percent of India’s 1.2 billion people are breathing in pollution in excess of WHO’s standard for safety. The Power Ministry says the country will double coal production for electricity to 1 billion tons within five years, after already approving dozens of new coal plants. Project coal expansion through 2030 will at least double sulfur-dioxide levels, along with those of nitrogen oxide and lung-clogging particulates.
Photograph from Hyderabad India Online.