Michael Tauberg is a senior Columnist with ProgressiveBrief.com. We discussed his article Trump Administration Corruption Doesn’t Excuse the Bidens.
Air pollution in India is off the scale.
That sounds like a rhetorical flourish, but it isn’t. It’s literally the truth.
Most cities around the world, including in India, have sensors which monitor the levels of various pollutants, but one of the most important to monitor is called PM10s and PM2.5s. I won’t get into the technicalities but that’s basically a particle so small that our nasal hairs, the mucus on our airways and the other ways that our bodies have evolved to deal with impurities in the air, are unable to stop. We have no natural defenses against them.
And they’re bad.
Breathing elevated levels of these particles is associated with a whole range health problems including bronchial asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, interstitial pneumonia and birth defects, and they are listed as a grade 1 carcinogen, the worst type.
They can come from a variety of sources including diesel engines, power plants, agricultural burning and domestic fires for heating and cooking. They are estimated to cause up to 50,000 deaths per year in the United States, and more than a third of a million deaths per year in Europe, which is more densely populated.
There is a scale that basically measures how polluted the air is, it counts how many particles are in each cubic meter of air, anything under 50 is good, under 100 is satisfactory, between 200 and 300 is poor and there’s a warning with that it “may cause breathing discomfort to people on prolonged exposure, and discomfort to people with heart disease”.
Not nice, but it’s not the worst. Between 300 and 400, very poor air quality “may cause respiratory illness to the people on prolonged exposure. Effect may be more pronounced in people with lung and heart diseases”.
And the top of the scale, between 400 and 500 “may cause respiratory impact even on healthy people, and serious health impacts on people with lung/heart disease”. The scale doesn’t go higher, but the pollution can still get worse. Although there are no official classifications for the readings, the equipment can register higher readings in extremely polluted areas, but even they have their readings.
In the past few weeks, in some Indian cities, many sensors are all giving the same reading: 999. That would be a horrifying reading, if it were true. It would mean that the pollution level was double the top of the range of the worst category of pollution. But it’s not true. The air pollution isn’t that bad.
The reading is 999 because that’s the highest reading the sensors can give. When they were designed, nobody imagined that they would need to measure air that badly polluted, so the design limitation is that readings of 1000 or above can’t be registered, they all appear as 999, so we don’t have real data, but even though we don’t have the true reading, we know that it is truly awful. It’s the equivalent of smoking 50 cigarettes a day.
It has devastating results. Apart from the obvious, lung cancers in non-smokers, half of Delhi’s 4.4 million schoolchildren have stunted lung development from which they will never recover. There are a variety of reasons why it is so bad now, some of them seasonal, but that’s not the point I want to make here.
The live map of world air quality shows that air pollution is worst in poor Asian countries, by a long way. There are some environmental campaigners who advocate a return to a low-tech village life and who idealize some third-world ways of life; what they don’t realize is that what they are describing is poverty; grinding poverty.
And people in grinding poverty like that will do almost anything to improve their lives right now. That may be cutting down a tree to get firewood to cook their next meal, burning smoky coal to keep warm or driving a dirty diesel truck to earn a few bucks.
You can try to explain to them that they are endangering their long-term future, but when your short term future is in jeopardy, that’s not so persuasive. It’s like telling someone going before a firing squad that they shouldn’t have that last cigarette, it’s bad for them.
It’s true that the world faces gigantic environmental challenges. The way to solve them is to move forwards, not backwards. We have developed technologies that were unimaginable a few decades ago. The choice isn’t between taking people out of poverty and meeting those challenges. In fact, it’s probably not possible to do one without the other.