According to India’s National Health Profile 2015, there were almost 3.5m reported cases of acute respiratory infection (ARI) last year, a 140,000 increase on the previous year and a 30% increase since 2010. The number of ARI cases has risen steadily in India over the last 15 years, even when population growth is taken into account. In 2001, less than 2,000 cases per 100,000 people had an ARI. In 2012 the number was 2,600 per 100,000, statistics show.
The rise has occurred despite steady improvements in medical care and nutrition, as well as a shift away from using wood as fuel in rural areas. Together this has mitigated many factors long blamed for the high levels of respiratory diseases in India. Doctors are blaming the increasing severity of the problem on unprecedented decline in air quality across India.
This summer, some reports suggested that Chennai experience worse pollution than anywhere else in India. Though the data has been challenged, it is clear that the levels of hazardous gases such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and ozone, as well as of deadly fine particulates, in the southern city have consistently breached the WHO’s maximum safe limit. “Some reports are alarmist but in general, for sure, parts of Chennai are definitely worse than Delhi,” said Shweta Narayan, an activist. The worst affected areas of Chennai, which has a population of around 4 million people, lie on its northern rim, where petrochemical works, car factories and coal-burning power stations exist close to residential areas. In July, levels of deadly PM2.5 particulates in the Manali neighbourhood were four times the WHO safe limit. These particulates lodge in the lungs and allow heavy metals to enter the bloodstream.
Pollution expert Raja worked for five years at the Californian Air Resources Board. The air in the US state, once infamous for its smoggy cities, is now cleaner than in decades, even though problems remain. “They have done an enormous amount … but it took 40 years. Here [in India] air pollution is probably going to be very severe for a couple of decades before it gets any better,” he said.
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