Cities in India and China drowned in a sea of automobiles are experiencing maximum health issues, like “acute” as well as “chronic” respiratory problems and lung cancers, due to air pollution, a United Nations body has said.

The rising population of SUVs (sports utility vehicles), cars and two-wheelers in Indian cities where it is a status symbol for middle classes to posses the latest automobiles are having a deathly impact on people, the global body said.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that around 1.34 million premature deaths from respiratory diseases and cancers were caused due to polluted air in 2008.

Rapidly industrialising cities in China, India, and other growing developing countries are the epicentre for the lung diseases.

“If the WHO guidelines had been universally met, an estimated 1.09 million deaths could have been prevented in 2008,” said Maria Neira, WHO Director for Public Health and Environment.

In its latest report, data on air quality data was compiled from 1,100 cities across 91 countries. It did not rank cities according to the highest pollution.

The report said categorically that countries which are experiencing maximum growth and industrialisation, particularly “China and India,” are experiencing the maximum health problems due to polluted air.

“Yes, cities in India and China are facing air pollution that is threatening public health,” said Ms. Neira. “Lack of clean air is causing ‘acute’ as well as ‘chronic’ respiratory problems in these countries,” she said, arguing that these countries would experience highest number of heart, lung, cancer and asthma and acute lower respiratory infections if the air quality is not improved on a war footing.

“The largest contributions to urban outdoor air pollution include motor transport, small scale manufacturers and other industries, burning biomass and coal for cooking and heating, as well as coal-fired power plants.”

“PM10 particles, which are particles of 10 micrometres or less, which can penetrate into the lungs and may enter the bloodstream, can cause heart disease, lung cancer, asthma, and acute lower respiratory infections,” said Ms. Neira, adding that there is a growing need for public awareness.

Most of the cities compiled in the WHO’s report have breached the global health body’s air quality guidelines for PM10 which is 20 micrograms per cubic metre as an annual average.

But cities in China and India should average PM10 to the order of 300 micrograms per cubic meter. There is growing awareness of the problem in both China and India, said Carlos Dora, WHO co-ordinator for interventions for Health Environments.

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