Lung cancer is often thought of as a smoker’s disease – and for good reason. Tobacco use drastically increases one’s risk of developing the disease. Yet in India more and more lung cancer cases are being seen among people who have never smoked.
A study conducted by doctors at the Sir Ganga Ram Hospital (SGRH) in Delhi found that, of 150 lung cancer patients, half were non-smokers. 21 percent were aged under fifty. 20.6 percent were women.
“Decades back, lung cancer cases were attributed to smokers and old age groups,” said Dr Arvind Kumar, chairman of the SGRH Centre for Chest Surgery, who led the study. “[This] is changing rapidly. In our study, the ratio of smoker to non-smoker was found to be 1:1 as opposed to all earlier reports.”
The findings suggest India’s lung cancer burden is crossing demographic boundaries. If this is the case, it demands the question: why?
The answer can potentially be found in the skies of India. Air pollution levels are skyrocketing nationwide – and, with them, diseases of the respiratory system such as lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), bronchitis, emphysema and asthma.
The pollution in India’s cities often grabs the most attention. The fourteen most polluted cities in the world are in India, leaving millions in danger of a host of related health problems. Delhi, in particular, is often in the spotlight. Its pollution crisis last winter – one which saw Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal liken the city to a “gas chamber” – arrested headlines both at home and abroad.
These issues are undeniably deserving of attention and a decisive response. What often slips below the radar, however, is the toll pollution takes on rural areas. These regions account for 75 percent of India's deaths due to pollution. The combustion of biofuels indoors and the burning of agricultural waste both inflict massive damage – both on the environment and on the health of citizens.
The latest findings concerning the rise of lung cancer among groups the disease has seldom visited in years past is the latest indicator that air pollution represents an enormous health hazard to Indians – one which is affecting the country and its people in many ways. With cities and rural regions alike gasping for breath, it must be understood that the situation will only deteriorate unless firm action is taken. The air may not be clear, but the reality certainly is: air pollution is everyone’s crisis. If it is not responded to, then everyone suffers.