Pollution chokes, kills you silently over a number of years: Experts

Viral fever, infections with symptoms of cough, lung infection and fevers that usually end in September have persisted and steadily risen through October this year. The number of people complaining of throat and airway infections, in fact, have gone up by close to 20% in the past one week.

People with asthma and chronic bronchitis are having increasing trouble breathing over the past three weeks, with doctors estimating the numbers to go up by 30-40% of the normal after Diwali.

While short-term exposure causes airway and lung infections and aggravates breathing disorders, chronic exposure can lead to several life-threatening diseases. “Pollution kills. Every year thousands die of pollution-related ailments in Delhi and NCR during the winters when the air is extremely foul. Pollution is a silent killer; it does not directly kill anyone but aggravates existing diseases,” said Dr Randeep Guleria, director of All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS).

This year, there has been no respite from infections. “There is usually a rise in the number of people with upper respiratory tract infections in the end of August, when the rains stops and it starts getting colder. The next spike happens in October, when the temperature dips and the crop burning starts. There is a sharp increase after Diwali that continues to February of next year,” said Dr Vikas Maurya, head of department of pulmonology at Fortis hospital, Shalimar Bagh.

The rains this year persisted for a fortnight longer and the end of the monsoon was quickly followed by farm fires that polluted the air. “This year, the rains lasted well into September because of which the season-end infections occured late. These then sort of bunched together with infections and conditions associated with pollution, leading to more than the usual number of infections and respiratory symptoms,” said Dr Nevin Kishore, head of bronchology, Max Super speciality hospital, Saket.

Firecrackers more harmful

A single snake tablet can produce 64,500 µg/m3 of PM 2.5 within three minutes and a garland (ladi) of 1,000 crackers produces 38,540 µg/m3 of PM 2.5 within six minutes, according to a study conducted by the Chest Research Foundation, Pune.

The permitted annual mean of PM2.5 is 40 µg/m3, according to the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. The World Health Organisation puts this number at 10 µg/m3.

But, it is not just the PM levels

“Pollution from fireworks is more harmful than that from vehicular emissions or crop burning. This is because the chemicals used in the crackers release harmful heavy metals into the atmosphere,” said Raj Kumar, director, Vallabhbhai Patel Chest Institute in Delhi.

“Increased particulate matter from burning fireworks mainly comprises fine and ultrafine spherical particles. Elevated levels of trace metals, ions and various forms of carbon are present in the particulate matter. Unique physical and chemical properties of ambient particulate matter during short-term firework burning can lead to substantial increase in adverse health effects,” states a study from National University of Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

The recent Supreme Court judgement has set a two-hour window period for bursting “green” firecrackers, which will produce less pollution. The Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (PESO) has to ensure that only fireworks with permitted chemical content are produced, sold, purchased and used.

As per the PESO specifications, the highest allowed content is 20% for sulphur, 57% for nitrates and 24% for aluminium. Lithium, mercury, arsenic, lead and antimony containing crackers are banned, so are potassium chlorate-based crackers.

The chemical content is seldom displayed on the packaging.

Long-term damage

With Delhi’s air quality hovering between 300 and 400 on most days through the winter months, the long-term consequences of pollution cannot be ignored.

“Pollution increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases like heart attacks and strokes. This is because the small particulate matter can travel in the blood stream and lead to narrowing of blood vessels,” said Guleria. “It can also result in stunted growth of the lungs in children and cause more respiratory problems later in life,” he said.

Long-term exposure also leads to people developing asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). In India, 50% of all COPD is caused by ambient and household air pollution, a recent state-level burden of disease published in Lancet stated. Globally, 80% of COPD is caused by smoking.

Another recent study showed that long-term exposure can also impair cognitive abilities.

“From a public health perspective, poor quality air is the costliest health hazard, perhaps just after poor quality drinking water,” said Anurag Agarwal, director of translational research in lung disease at Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB). He was also one of the authors of the Lancet papers and is himself an asthmatic.

First Published: Nov 01, 2018 07:47 IST

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