It’s Jan. 1, 2016, and I just landed in New Delhi, India, for a medical conference. The city of 16 million, like any other city, has large factories, miles of concrete structures, traffic gridlock and millions of cars spewing pollution. And today, like every winter day, the city is covered with a dense smog or fog — I am not sure what it is.
The air is heavy. My teenage son complains, “Dad, my throat burns … we can’t see beyond a few hundred meters … there is no fresh air.” Everyone seems to have a cough. It did not used to be this way. As a medical student, I did a two-month overseas rotation in New Delhi and enjoyed the sights, the air and the city life.
New Delhi is not alone. Air pollution in other cities from Beijing to Los Angeles has come to unacceptable levels, despite the latter making significant strides. It was ironic that on Nov. 30, 2015, when the Paris climate change conference began, Beijing had the worst air pollution “smog day” of the year, forcing outdoor school activities to close and construction work to suspend.
Our climate is changing, and there is no better evidence than our cities. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “climate change and air pollution are closely coupled.” (See EPA’s “Climate Change and Air Quality,” epa.gov/airquality/airtrends/2011/report/climatechange.pdf) Living each day in a city such as New Delhi causes damage to our lungs that is equal to smoking one pack of cigarettes a day.
Fortunately, this New Year’s Day, Delhi was doing something about its pollution problem. It was piloting an “odd-even” policy based on car license plates. Today being the first, an odd day, only cars with odd-numbered license plates could be on the road; cars with even-numbered license plates would receive a $30 fine.
As we drive from the airport to the hotel, my taxi driver marvels at a stop light, “It usually take me three signals to get through this; today it just took one.” The trip that usually takes an hour takes us just 20 minutes.
Other cities such as Beijing and Mexico City implemented similar measures and are showing success in reducing traffic and air pollution.
In New Delhi, it was political will that brought the change. A new government with an idealistic but practical leader took on the challenge. I realized we don’t need more research for pollution control. Rather, we need more global political will. At the Paris climate change conference, 151 heads of state attended and committed to a change.
We would be naive to think that Memphis is immune to the problem of air pollution. According to the website EcoMemphis.com, the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory of 2012 reported that Shelby County released 5 million pounds of toxic material waste in our land, air and water in comparison to Nashville, which released only 326 thousand pounds of toxic material. On one summer day in June 2012, Shelby County pollution reached a code purple — the second highest code in the air quality index.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy nonprofit organization, Memphis will see a 40 percent increase in “red alert” days when air quality is considered unhealthy. This makes it difficult for children with asthma or adults with COPD or emphysema to be outdoors.
One 2004 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine looked at how exposure to air pollution impacted lung function among children ages 10 to 18. Some 1,800 children were recruited from communities near Los Angeles and their lung function was measured for eight years. The results were sobering. The authors wrote that “current levels of air pollution have chronic, adverse effects on lung development in children … leading to clinically significant deficits.”
Los Angeles is working hard to reduce its pollution. Still, air quality has a long way to go there.
Until we are willing to invest in energy-efficient power plants and cars, rely less on fossil fuels and build clean sources such as wind and solar, our children will continue to suffer. Whether it’s in New Delhi or Memphis, I want my son — and all our kids — to have a future of clean air and a healthy planet.
Source: Commercial Appeal