India is home to some of the most polluted cities in the world. The quality of air in some of the biggest cities in the country is rarely ever at permissible limits, and poses a serious threat to people’s health and well being.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), air pollution kills as many as 7 million people annually, and data shows that nine out of 10 people breathe air that exceeds WHO’s guideline limits for pollutants. Those living in low- and middle-income countries suffer from the highest exposures.
“There are many pollutants that are major factors in disease in humans. Among them, Particulate Matter (PM), particles of variable but very small diameter, penetrate the respiratory system via inhalation, causing respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, reproductive and central nervous system dysfunctions, and cancer,” says a report.
We spoke to ENT specialist Dr. (Major) Rajesh Bhardwaj (consultant with Practo) about the impact of air pollution on our health and what precautions can we take to keep ourselves safe. Edited excerpts from the interview:
What are PM 2.5 particles? How are they bad for you?
Particulate matter 2.5 or fine particles are tiny particles or droplets in the air. PM 2.5 means particles are 2.5 microns or smaller in diameter. These can only be visualised with an electron microscope. They are dangerous; you can see dust, smoke or fumes but you cannot see these particles, they are invisible to the naked eye.
These particles can cause short-term health effects like throat, eyes, nose, and lung irritation. Over long term, these can also impact your heart, lungs, and worsen asthma.
The AQI in some Indian cities is above normal for most of the year. Talk to us about the health consequences of breathing bad quality air?
According to reports, 14 out of 20 most polluted cities in the world are in India, and Delhi was amongst the leaders. In recent research, it has been found that most urban landscapes in India are in dangerous zones. In the winter months, as the temperature falls, the particulate matter density in the air rises. In north India, stubble burning contributes to this. It is only during the monsoon season, that the rain washes away these particles.
Let’s talk about air pollutants. These are divided into three categories. The first are gases, the second is particulate matter, and the third, which is very relevant right now because of covid, are bacteria and virus. When we talk about management of air, the bacteria and virus are important in the current scenario. The harmful gases in the air are carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ground level ozone, sulphur dioxide, these all come from various industrial and combustion activities. The biggest culprit is fossil fuel burning, construction, and farm activities like ploughing and stubble burning.
Each of these pollutants has its own harmful effect. Carbon monoxide reaches the body’s organs and tissues, and aggravates disease. Most of the particulate matter that we see impacts the lungs, it causes long-term lung damage. There are also reports that show a higher incidence of lung cancer in places where the air quality is bad. For asthmatics, it is particularly hard as poor air leads to allergy and asthma attacks; they definitely need to clean the air around them.
It is also important to note that a large percentage of this country’s population live in single room households, where they are burning coal or wood to cook, and their exposure to household air pollution is really high. Under these circumstances, we have seen a high incidence of serious diseases like chronic pulmonary disease, cancer, low birth-weight babies, and low haemoglobin.
What precautions can people with asthma or other respiratory conditions take?
The first and foremost is cleaning the household air; the number one recommendation is to get rid of all your carpets, replace carpets with vinyl or hard flooring. Number two — wash all your curtains, bedding, pillow covers, quilt covers, repeatedly and regularly with hot water. Put them out in the hot sun to dry. Both are necessary to get rid of particulate matter, particularly house dust, mites and various other particles like pollen.
Once in the day, open your doors and windows, but not early in the morning. The safe time to open your doors and windows would be between midday and 4 pm. That’s when particulate matter and pollutants are lower than in the morning. The early morning air is actually the most polluted. The next thing we should do is wet mopping, rather than dry (sweeping) or dusting that we do. Wet mopping and vacuum cleaning is definitely safer, it is recommended. You also would want to clean your surfaces because they attract a lot of dust and pollen.
You can watch the full interview here:
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