Cloud May Be Responsible For Health Problems

By T.C. Malhotra | July 7, 2008 | 8:12 PM EDT

New Delhi ( - A three-kilometer deep cloud of pollutants drifting over South Asia may be responsible for severe health problems for millions as well as environmental damage.

Indian environmental experts urged a shift to more green-friendly fuels for cooking and transportation.

"The appearance of this 'brown cloud' is indeed a serious environmental issue," Centre for Science and Environment director Sunita Narian said in New Delhi.

"Such a threat can be checked only if proper measures, such as adopting clean fuel, are taken by the government and industry," she added.

Campaigners suggested the pollution cloud may also be behind this year's highly unusual monsoon season.

Despite predictions of normal rainfall, India recorded its driest July in 100 years.

But while most of the country suffered a drought, in the east of the country hundreds have died in floods, which have also affected neighboring Nepal and Bangladesh.

"The report is very worrying," said Jai Prakash Nishad, a former environment minister, urging the government to seek help from developed countries and world bodies.

The Indian environment ministry would not comment on the report. Neither would the country's meteorological agency comment on the claim that the pollutants could be affecting weather patterns.

An association of chambers of industry called for the use of gasoline substitutes, such as compressed natural gas, as well as cleaner-burning fuels for cooking purposes in rural areas.

Vanket Sundram, a professor of environmental science at Jawarhalal Nehru University in New Delhi, said the pollutants were having "a dramatic impact on climate change in the region."

Released in London his week, a report by scientists working with the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP), said the cloud comprised a combination of ash, acids, aerosols and other particles.

It warned that the pollution could lead to hundreds of thousands of premature deaths due to respiratory diseases.

The acids present could, as acid rain, potentially damage crops and trees, it added.

The report, compiled by more than 200 scientists, comes from data collected by ships, planes and satellites in and over the Indian Ocean area between 1995 and 2000.

It attributes the cloud to fires, wood- and dung-burning stoves and other low-tech pollutants - open fires are used by the majority of Indians to cook their food - as well as from the clearing of forest and vegetation by burning.

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