With the World Heath Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer declaring air pollution as a major cause of cancer, its findings have put the focus on Indian hotspots like Delhi, West Bengal, Maharashtra and Jharkhand which showed high concentration of life-threatening air pollutants.
Air quality data of the government’s pollution watchdog, Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), for 2010 – the last one in the series of such reports on air quality across the country – shows that Kolkata and Delhi are among the worst affected cities in terms of air pollution.
In fact, figures compiled by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) for 2009-11 vindicate what the world health body has concluded while putting ‘air pollution’ in the same category as tobacco, UV radiation and plutonium as lung cancer causing agents.
Quoting the ICMR data which showed that the highest number of lung cancer cases was reported during 2009-11 in Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata, noted environmentalist and director general of Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) Sunita Narain said, “It is a worrying development. We need to take urgent steps to find ways to deal with the menace of air pollution which directly affects our health.”
She added, “It’s not that we can’t do it. Taking the message from what the WHO-backed scientific research has found, the government must immediately make Euro-IV norms in vehicles mandatory across the country and stop incentivizing car users. Government must also focus on public transport in a big way to minimize vehicular air pollution on priority basis.”
A CSE report pointed to a forecast of the National Cancer Control Programme which said more than 1.4 million people would suffer from some form of cancer in India by 2026. It also said that out of total number of cases reported during 2009-11 in Kolkata for 20 types of cancers, lung cancer had the highest share of 12%.
CSE executive director of research and advocacy on air pollution Anumita Roychowdhury termed WHO’s findings as a “wake up call” for India. She said, “This is the first time scientists have evaluated the air people breathe for its cancer-causing potential. This is a sharp departure from assessing only specific pollutants for cancer potency.”
Her report extensively quoted figures of the Delhi Cancer Registry, AIIMS, which said Delhi alone reported 13,000 new cases of cancer every year with 10% of them being lung cancer. It stressed that all those who suffered from lung cancer in recent years did not have any history of smoking.
Roychowdhury said, “The situation demands urgent and immediate policy intervention from the government to prevent exposure early in life to reduce risk as it takes long years for this toxic effect to surface.”
She called for “legally binding” targets for Indian cities to meet the air quality standard and gave an example of how it was being done in the US where cities have to face cut in their federal grants if they don’t meet the targets. “Why can’t we handle it through strict legal framework for cities/states in India?” she asked.