• “Papa, are we inhaling carbon dioxide instead of oxygen'” asks seven-year-old Medha, between coughing bouts, while waiting for a bus at the fume-filled Minto Park crossing. She has just learnt in class that carbon dioxide is the bad air we must not breathe, as it causes various problems…
• Lizel, just about as young as Medha, forces her tram activist father Michael Douglas to return to Melbourne sooner than planned, as she just cannot take the foul Calcutta air for more than a week. She suffers a bout of acute respiratory problem, with coughing and sneezing...
These are no exceptional cases. Breathing uneasy in the gas chamber, also called Calcutta, is the rule. And pollution peril is taking a heavy toll on the city’s health.
How bad is the air scare, vis-à-vis our bronchial tract and our lungs'
Lets start at the West Bengal Pollution Control Board. “About six out of every 10 Calcutta residents suffer from respiratory symptoms throughout the year, with the figure going up to eight out of 10 during winter,” is the board’s official ill-health estimate.
“The lung-function test among various segments of the city’s population indicates that 47 per cent of individuals surveyed have impaired lung capacity,” continues the board’s report.
The ‘hit’ list of air pollution runs into several lakhs every year and cuts across barriers of age and address .
“We are flooded with children complaining of acute respiratory infection, especially during the winter months,” confirms paediatrician Subhamoy Mukherjee.
Rewind to a World Bank report in 1995. An estimated 5,726 “air pollution-related premature deaths” in the city, it said, were recorded during 1991-92. A similar study by the Centre for Science & Environment had pegged the “death due to pollution” count at 10,647 for 1995.
A four-year study undertaken by Chittaranjan National Cancer Institute and Calcutta University showed taxi drivers and traffic police to be the worst hit, clearly establishing tailpipe emission as culprit number one.
“Diesel vehicles have been the main source of respiratory diseases across all age groups, with children the worst affected. Chronic bronchitis, and even lung cancer, are said to be occurring due to rising pollution,” observes respiratory disease consultant Pavan Agarwal.
Even more dangerous, project-in-charge Twisha Lahiri states in a published scientific communication, is the fact that “air pollution in Calcutta not only affects the respiratory system of the city’s children, but also the genome (genetic constituent) of the exposed tissue, leading to an array of health problems”.
Respiratory disease consultant Susovan Haldar concludes: “Even three to five-year-olds are suffering from bronchial asthma… It is really sad.”