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Dust and decibels

In Chennai, Anitha Pitchika studied dentistry, but turned her attention to environmental issues when she came to Germany. In her Master’s thesis at LMU, Anitha explored the effects of air pollution and noise levels on human health.


Haze, smog, fine particulates – and the ceaseless roar of traffic: Levels of atmospheric pollution and noise are generally high in India’s cities. “In my hometown Chennai, air pollution is particularly problematic,” Anitha says, “and not many people are aware of the fact that life expectancy is significantly lower in areas where levels of airborne particles are high.”

Anitha’s first choice of subject at university had little to do with environmental pollution. In Chennai, she obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Dentistry. But Anitha is a problem-solver by nature, and she chose to do an MSc in Epidemiology at LMU. Epidemiologists study the relationships between various environmental and biological factors and the health of the population, and their work often uncovers deleterious effects that can be mitigated by appropriate public health measures. “I also wanted to tackle a Master’s topic that would give me more opportunity to do original research,” she says. “Research is much more diverse at German universities and enjoys much greater financial support. For me, it’s like a dream come true.”

Unaccustomed freedoms
When she returns to India to visit her family, she is once again confronted with the alarming levels of air pollution that prevail in many Indian cities – higher than in any urban setting in Germany, she points out. “Of course I miss my friends and the social life I had in India. On the other hand, I very much enjoy living in Munich – primarily because its offers a higher overall quality of life.” And she revels in the freedom and independence that the city and its surroundings provide. For example, she enjoys hiking in the countryside in Germany, which offers a less polluted environment than India.

In her Master’s thesis she explored the Long-Term Effects of Objective and Subjective Measures of Exposure to Air Pollution and Noise at Residence on Prevalent Hypertension and Blood Pressure. Her findings clearly show that the concentration of atmospheric particulates and levels of ambient noise in residential neighborhoods are both positively correlated with the prevalence of hypertension. In urban settings, both environmental parameters are largely determined by the volume of motor traffic – and her work shows that they play a significant role in promoting the development of cardiovascular disease. In addition, her study focuses on the role of the subjective perception of pollution levels in this context, a factor that has been largely neglected up to now. “It turns out, however,” she says, “that the importance of subjective impressions of environmental stress levels should not be underestimated.” On the other hand, everyone can take steps to reduce the negative impacts of environmental pollution on cardiovascular health. Amintha’s advice? -- Get plenty of exercise! “That’s better for everyone, regardless of the level of pollution in one’s neighborhood.”

Her thesis has now won her one of LMU’s Research Prizes for Gifted Students, sponsored by Lehre@LMU, and her findings will be published in the journal Science of the Total Environment. This success has increased Anitha’s motivation to explore other epidemiological issues, and she has now begun work on her PhD thesis. Her focus this time is on the impact of so-called gestational diabetes – a condition in which the expectant mother develops insulin resistance during pregnancy – on the health of the child. “In my doctoral work, I simply want to gain more research experience while I am in Germany,” she says. “In terms of methodology, in particular, the quality of research in Germany is much higher than it is in India,” she adds. “And at home, people don’t know enough about what can be done to alleviate and prevent diseases. When I have obtained my PhD, I want to return to India and continue to work on research projects there.” 

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