News Roundup [abridged Versions Appear In The Paper Journal]

Indian government denies health impact of brown cloud

BMJ 2002; 325 doi: (Published 07 September 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;325:513
  1. Sanjay Kumar
  1. New Delhi

    Scientists in India are claiming that the Asian brown cloud is not something specific to Asia and does not have a knock-on effect on pollution related mortality.

    The cloud, almost the size of United States, has been described by experts from the United Nations' environment programme as a blanket of brown haze 3 km deep. They say that it hangs over a vast territory encompassing the northern Indian Ocean, India, Pakistan, and much of South Asia, South East Asia, and China for as long as four winter months a year.

    The cloud is caused mostly by burning fossil fuels. It is supposedly causing lower temperatures and changing precipitation patterns, which is leading to floods and droughts, threatening food safety, and causing thousands of deaths owing to respiratory illnesses.

    In a sharp reaction to the UN report, India’s environment ministry has stated that the report’s conclusions were “unfounded and there is no scientific evidence to suggest any linkage between the haze and its impact on weather patterns, floods and droughts, precipitation, crop yields, acid rains, and pollution related mortality.”

    India says that the alarming picture of the brown haze painted by the UN report was based on preliminary limited modelling studies founded on several assumptions and studies from which no definite conclusions could be drawn. The haze is not specific to the Asian region but is also seen over Europe, North America, and east Asia, the Indian ministry says.

    The environment ministry says that the report’s drastic conclusions about disruption of weather patterns or massive monsoons, floods, and draughts caused by the cloud were “unfounded” as the report dealt only with the winter season over South Asia.

    “The results of the report and the experiments cannot be applied to other seasons,” the ministry added.

    Although the UN report targeted the use of “bio-fuels” (such as cow dung) in developing countries, India says that use of such fuels in these countries is a natural option to meet energy demand and that they result in “survival” emissions rather than “luxury” emissions.

    “It is therefore an alarming statement to say that over the next 30 years the pollution would increase without taking into consideration different steps being taken (such as introduction of new technologies) to check emission of pollutants,” says India’s ministry.

    India has also questioned the report’s statement about the effects of transcontinental movement of the Asian brown cloud. According to the UN press statement, the pollution that is forming the cloud could be leading to “several hundreds of thousands” of premature deaths as a result of higher levels of respiratory diseases. Studies show that mortality was rising along with the rise in pollution, it added.

    Reacting to this, India’s ministry points out that the UN group did not study the health impacts of the Asian brown cloud and the UN report itself does not link the cloud directly with mortality.

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