Air Pollution and Health Hazards

January 14, 2020

“Around 3.8 million people die every year around the world due to ambient air pollution,” remarked Jeanine D’Armiento, Columbia University Professor of Medicine, at the opening session of a symposium on the topic held at Columbia Global Centers | Mumbai.  The symposium was one among multiple events organized at the Center between December 2-4, 2019, to deliberate the health impact and clinical significance of air pollution in India, bringing together a group of leading scientists, practitioners, civil society organizations, and public health officials working at the forefront of research and policy.

Experts presented their research on the impact of air pollution on respiratory, cardiovascular, neurological, and other diseases.  Significant attention was paid to the burning of cheap fossil fuels and its link to pulmonary disorders.  Professor D’Armiento cited her research in India where she found that women who use biomass gas for cooking are exposed to dangerous brown carbon, resulting in compromised lung function.  Dr. Qamar Rahman, Dean of Research at Amity University, Lucknow, observed that women, especially from marginalized sectors and in the reproductive age group, are most affected by air pollution in India due to their household responsibilities and work in hazardous informal occupations. 

A second symposium led by Professors Mary Beth Terry and Jasmine McDonald from Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health and recipients of a Yusuf Hamied Fellowship award, dealt with the effects of environment pollution on breast cancer.  The incidence of early onset of breast cancer among women in India has increased dramatically and research indicates that young women and women at high risk are more susceptible to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and other environmental carcinogens, observed Professor McDonald.  “Age of occurrence of breast cancer in India is almost a decade earlier when compared to western countries,” noted Dr. Gaurav Agarwal from the Sanjay Gandhi Post Graduate Institute of Medical Sciences in Lucknow. 

Faculty and surgeons from India and the Columbia University Medical Center delved into three main areas of breast cancer incidence – shift towards a younger population, clinical issues faced by surgeons while operating on breast cancer cases, and obstacles in screening practices related to breast cancer diagnoses in India.

Participants also discussed potential solutions and tools to mitigate harmful health effects of air pollution.  While addressing the inadequacy of data gaps was critical for breast cancer, scientists agreed that in the case of respiratory disorders, there was enough evidence to prove the negative effects of air pollution.  What was needed in the latter instance was the implementation of policies to regulate and reduce environmental pollution.  At a panel discussion organized for a wider public, faculty pointed to the pressing need to raise awareness among the youth and other stakeholders by building strong communication channels, a strategic focus that will be developed further at the Center in the coming year.