I wake up and suck a bowl of charred asbestos through a dirty bong.
Well, that’s what it feels like most winter mornings when I open the door of the fourth-floor New Delhi apartment that I currently call home. Fog-drenched clumps of soot, ozone molecules, and microscopic bundles of nitrogen oxides flow down my trachea and into my chest, where some become lodged. Some of these particles might give me lung cancer. Others will enter my bloodstream, further inflaming old ankle and finger injuries. The airborne detritus puts me in danger of contracting bronchitis, asthma, a lung infection, even hypertension and dementia.
China’s appalling air quality made headlines around the world this winter. But people living in New Delhi and in dozens of other cities throughout the developing world consistently endure air with heavier loads of soot than do the residents of Beijing. While most Americans and Europeans now enjoy cleaner air than they did for much of the last century, air pollution is worsening in Asia, claiming millions of lives every year.
After weeks without a trip outside of Delhi, I gradually stop noticing the filth in the air. There are exceptions, of course, such as that hostile blast of moist air on a foggy winter morning. Or when I’m sitting at a stoplight in an open-air auto rickshaw, feeling fumes wash over me from a honking swarm of vehicles. Or when a layer of darkness veils my drying clothes, coats the inside of my nose, or hangs heavy along a horizon.
With every breath, regardless of how mindful or oblivious I am of the poison that’s filling my lungs, my risk of suffering a stroke or a heart attack increases.
An estimated 3.2 million people died prematurely in 2010 because of the poisonous effects of outdoor air pollution, according to the findings of an exhaustive study of global causes of death published in December in the Lancet. Two-thirds of those killed by air pollution lived in Asia, where air quality continues to worsen.
Outdoor air pollution has become India’s fifth highest killer. Only tobacco, high blood pressure, indoor air pollution typically caused by poorly ventilated stoves, and diets that are poor in fruit and vegetables kill more people here.