Breathing shallow – The air pollution woes

By Ashish Kumar (LMB)

Delhi and the surrounding national capital region is making national headlines recently for “not so glamorous” reasons. The matter is about something as basic as the air we breathe in and take so much for granted.

Since the onset of winters, the entire city is engulfed in a thick layer of toxic smog carrying all the notorious pollutants possible – the most lethal being the particulate matters PM 2.5 and PM 10. For days now, the air quality index has rested at hazardous levels as per the WHO guidelines and the Delhi high court has gone to the extent of referring to the situation as something similar to “living in a gas chamber”.

The popular metaphor ‘Men of wisdom fetch their breath from deep inside’, which was originally in the context of the power of meditation, has gone drastically wrong for Delhi’ites.

So, is this a new phenomenon? Or just that the hyperactive media blowing it out of proportion? Well, quite a substantial chunk of local population is still of the opinion that it doesn’t concern them. They say they are braving this climate since years and are still alive. Simply put, they are now used to it.

On the contrary, if scientific research on the subject (which is available in plenty) is to be believed, this is a condition of ‘Health Emergency’ which calls for shutting down of traffic, schools and regular institutions. Any outdoor exposure is considered harmful on days when PM concentration is in Purple (Above 200) and Maroon (above 300) range, even for extremely healthy and young people. Even a red (Above 100) PM 2.5 level falls in unhealthy category.

The worldwide acceptable levels of PM2.5 is 10 μg / m3  averaging annually in an area. The reading for Canada last year was 13, whereas it was 134 for India. Indian authorities have prescribed a more liberal limit of 60, which in Delhi, has happened only on two days in the entire year when there was a continuous downpour. The year-round average for Delhi was 250. So, there are no non-smokers in Delhi, technically.

In a nutshell, anyone living in Delhi presently is compromising lung and other vital bodily functions. Athletes who are pushing their limits outdoors are in the maximum risk zone and are prone to serious health implications. The ‘used to’ kind of people with supposedly ‘Superhuman’ abilities to survive and thrive in this scenario could probably be compared with a smoker who claims to have defeated illness and death even after years of smoking. We need to understand that cigarettes or filthy air for that matter, will not kill anyone instantly and it may take years for the negative effects to surface. Scientific community is dead certain about the fact that exposure of this toxic smog need to be minimized and there are a number of studies to back it up.

One such study done by National center for Biotechnology Information (which is a part of US National library of Medicine) claims that –

Quote: “for short-term exposure, for every 10-μg/m3 increase in PM2.5 exposure, there was a 2.8% increase in PM-related mortality (95% confidence interval [CI] = 2.0–3.5). For the long-term exposure at the grid cell level, the odds ratio (OR) for every 10-μg/m3increase in long-term PM2.5 exposure is 1.6 (CI = 1.5–1.8) for particle-related diseases”, unquote.

In laymen language, it roughly translates to the fact that even in the case of short term exposure, there is a whopping 40% increase in mortality and morbidity rates at PM2.5 level of 200 compared to PM2.5 level of 60. So, everyone is at risk, including young and healthy adults. Children and elderly are more vulnerable due to poor immunity

Possible Solutions

In present circumstances, any effective solution is not in sight evidently – not anytime soon. So, the devil is here to stay in the near to medium term with no comprehensive plan in place. The ideal case scenario of leaving the city altogether to inhabit in the purity of mountains seems impractical for most. Even more and more people are leaving rural areas (with better air) to settle in the metropolitans to explore their share of the economic opportunity, which is going to make the situation of air and other sort of pollutions worse in these urban centers. While the best way to deal with the problem is to strike at the root by reducing emissions (both industrial and vehicular) and implementing environment friendly construction methodologies, there is evidence to support the role of individual precautions to minimize the health effect of this menace.

  1. Staying indoors: Most of the health advisory bodies worldwide instruct people to stay indoors as much as possible on days of poor air quality. Doors and windows should be shut during such times to reduce infiltration of outside air. Special care should be taken for children and elderly.
  2. Avoiding outdoor activity and exhaustion: Concentration of pollutants in certain micro-environments like areas with dense traffic likely to be worse. So, re-schedule your appointments and outdoor plans to a later date, if possible. Also, any activity that raises your heart rate is going to force you to gulp exorbitant amount of polluted air. So, re-think about your jogging plans. It’s better to shift the workouts indoor.
  3. Respirators: There is limited evidence to suggest that if worn with a proper facial fit, personal protective facemasks can reduce exposure to ambient air pollutants. A 2012 study at University of Edinburgh concludes that reducing personal exposure to air pollution using a highly efficient face mask appeared to reduce symptoms and improve a range of cardiovascular health measures in patients with coronary heart disease. Whatever limited protection it may provide is good. Ultimately, we are comparing apples to apples.
  4. Build immunity with food: While there are few studies to conclusively prove that eating a certain super-food or following a particular type of diet will make earn you the impunity, it is a common sense that balancing your nutrient intake is going to make the body well-prepared to flight allergies and diseases. A diet rich in vitamin C and certain foods like fish oil, amla (phyllanthus emblica), jaggery and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli are said to have positive effects on the immunity.
  5. Individual contribution: Attitude matters when it comes to fighting an evil. Small lifestyle changes and setting examples for others in the community will go a long way in reducing individual pollution footprint. Following a minimalistic life by avoiding unnecessary consumption, committing to cleaner fuels, saving energy, purchasing low polluting personal products, use of public transport and spreading awareness through community programs are some little things we, as an individual, can do at the personal level.


What’s fouling Delhi’s air: 4 studies, 4 conclusions

Leave a Reply

1 Comment threads
0 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
0 Comment authors
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Tanvi kapoor

Great work & great jotting of facts & figures.
pollution short term exporsure & threshold limit vaues seem myth as far as our capital is concerned.

Whatever is inhalaed won’t be undo & will remain saved in our lungs.

Mere declaring heath energecny is not enough. Gov has to go for hi-tech smoke suction devices, sprinklers etc at large scale.

We must- have a resuable respirator/face mace as one of daily accessories in our bags. -avoid wandering n moving while smoking cigarretes to ease passive smokers.