India is the home of many things. Today that list includes the city of burning lakes. The lakes of Bangalore, India’s Silicon Valley, are on fire due to the illegal dumping of waste and untreated sewage.
Bangalore had 262 lakes in the sixties earning it the name ‘lake city’. That number has dwindled to 81, of which only 34 are considered living ecosystems now.
Several species of birds and animals, like kingfishers, parrots, parakeets, king cobras and monitor lizards are gone.
Unplanned urbanization, free market greed and lack of environmental protection have taken its toll on Bangalore’s flora and fauna and the humans are next — scientists believe that the city will be unlivable by 2025. Last month a fire started in the Bellandur lake, the largest of the lakes in Bangalore, the second time in two years — the methane gas produced by the polluted lake had caught fire.
Another study shows that the air pollution in India rivals that of China and is causing 1.1 million premature deaths every year. How did we get here?
The explosion in personal car ownership and poor emission control is a major contributor to air pollution in India. Another is a love of fire in the majority Hindu population. We perform havans, a sacred fire ceremony, to seek God’s favor for auspicious beginnings, to express gratitude for happy endings, and to make our pledges irrevocable, like marriage vows. We consign our dead to the fire. We celebrate festivals — by lighting bonfires on Holi, burning effigies of demons on Dussehra, and by setting off thousands of tons of fireworks on Diwali, the festival of lights.
And now smog envelops major cities of India. And the children in Delhi, India’s capital, wear face masks to go to school, masks that filter particulate pollutants that I breathe when I visit my mother.
Another major cause of air pollution in Delhi is crop burning by farmers in Punjab, a neighboring state, as seen in images taken by NASA’s satellite Aqua. Crop-burning around Delhi is outlawed by India’s environmental courts. But who cares? In India, environmental regulations are weak, and there is no will to enforce those that are there, a state of affairs President Trump and the GOP might like to see in the United States after they cripple the Environmental Protection Agency with massive budget cuts and toxic leadership. No EPA, no regulations, no problem, except pollution.
Once upon a time, when members of Congress put their country before partisan politics, they enacted a series of Clean Air acts aimed to improve the quality of air Americans breathed.
In 1970, President Nixon signed the papers to establish the United States Environmental Protection Agency. And between 1970 and 2006, carbon monoxide emissions decreased by half, particulate emissions fell by 80 percent and lead emissions fell by more than 98 percent — irrefutable evidence that regulations work.
Now, the Trump administration has ordered a repeal of Clean Water Act protections for the nation’s wetlands and has already made it easier for coal miners to dump waste in the streams of West Virginia. Ironically, unlike the people of Bangalore, Americans can dump waste legally.
Our water and our air are precious. We cannot allow the repeal of the Clean Water Act and we need to ensure that there is still clean air to breathe for our children and grandchildren.
In 2012, the World Health Organization reported around 7 million deaths globally due to air pollution caused by high levels of ultrafine particulate pollutants.
These aerosolized particles enter the body through the lung, get absorbed into the blood and circulate causing severe respiratory problems, like asthma and pneumonia, and cardiovascular diseases like stroke and heart disease.
Major contributors to air pollution are emissions from motor vehicles in the US and from industries in Asia. Satellite images have shown plumes of contaminated air, industrial fumes containing black carbon, mercury, sulfates, and nitrates being carried over by trans-pacific westerly winds from booming Asian economies over the Pacific Ocean reaching the West Coast of the US.
One of these pollutants, mercury, is neurotoxic and is strongly associated with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. In pregnant women, it can cross the placenta and interfere with fetal brain development. Mercury is also released into the atmosphere after combustion of coal, and Trump wants to take America back to its coal-burning days. Trump is also considering relief for automakers from vehicle fuel-efficiency standards.
This is not the time to offer relief to polluters.
Regulations are of paramount importance to rein in the crop-burning farmers and the fire-loving Hindus of India, and to ebb the noxious emissions from gas-guzzling cars in the US and elsewhere, before it is too late.
President Trump, Scott Pruitt and the GOP leaders who are determined to cripple the EPA, only need to spend a week in Delhi or Beijing to remind them what major US cities would have been like without the will of previous lawmakers to ensure clean breathable air for all Americans. Trump environmental policies can certainly make America sick again.
Manju Lata Prasad, M.D., is a professor of pathology at the Yale School of Medicine and a Public Voices Fellow.