Down To Earth talks to doctors to get a sense of the ailments that residents of NCR are exposed to

Delhi air pollution

It has been more than a week of breathing heavily polluted air for Delhiites. It is safe to say that for more than 150 hours they breathed a toxic cocktail, with the air quality ‘severe’ or ‘severe +’ since October 30.

Particulate matters (PM) 2.5 and 10 remained at least five times more their safe standards. These ultrafine particles can enter the respiratory system and reach the bloodstream.

On an average, a person breathes 25,000 times a day. For those living in Delhi and the National Capital Territory (NCT) regions, this means breathing toxic air 25,000 times a day. Toxins once deposited in lungs cannot be cleansed. 

What does such continued exposure to ultrafine PM does to our bodies? 

According to doctors, such continued inhalation of toxic gases affects all organs and not just lungs. It even has the potential to cause hormonal imbalances. Being in such an environment full of pollutants constantly also affects the central nervous system of the brain.

“Impairment in concentration abilities has been seen. There can be other short-term disturbances to what you normally do,” Prashant Saxena, who heads the department of Pulmonology and Sleep Medicine at  Max hospital in New Delhi’s Saket, said.

“People living in polluted environments are prone to mood swings and insomnia as so many pollutants reach the bloodstream. They can change the biochemical profile of the substances which make us sleep,” he added.

Smoking a cigarette is equal to 22 microgrammes per cubic metre (µg/m3)air pollution, according to Berkley Earth Study on Equivalence of Air Pollution and Cigarette. For the past five days, the 24-hour average concentration of PM2.5 in the air that the city residents breathe remained above 200 µg/m— residents breathed nine-ten cigarettes per day on an average.

“There is no non smoker in polluted countries. Air pollution is a Group One carcinogen according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer,” Arvind Kumar, chairman of the Centre for Chest Surgery at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, said.

Besides causing lung cancer, chronic exposure to high levels of pollution increases the risk of heart diseases, chest pains, and chronic bronchitis, among other health consequences. These long-term effects are well documented.

During the post-Diwali pollution, as toxic haze shrouded the city, residents complained of incessant headaches, dizziness along with breathing troubles. Why?

“Headache is a symptom of low oxygen in the body. It also indicates that there could be an accumulation of abnormal gases in our bodies, eg the dangerous carbon monoxide — it has twice-thrice the affinity to bind to hemoglobin that carries oxygen in the body. Our body is suppressed from toxicity of the gas along with low oxygen; and this gas, if it combines with hemoglobin in the body causes symptoms such as headache, dizziness and unconsciousness,” Saxena said.

Chronic exposure also impairs the respiratory tract’s defense mechanism, opening it up for bacteria and viruses. This can cause several infections.

“The incidence of pneumonia has increased in the last few days. If a healthy individual comes with acute pneumonia or acute breathing troubles, it’s safe to say the cause is air pollution,” the doctor said.

After PM 2.5 and 10, now even PM 0.1 was being absorbed in the bloodstream, Karan Madan from All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) said.

“PM 2.5 is a particle less than 2.5 microns in size. And then there is the ultra fine PM 0.1, which means 0.1 microns are inhaled and passes to our lungs through our bloodstream. Once it is in the bloodstream, that means it can travel to all our organs,” he said.

Since the air quality levels dipped sharply, there has been an increase of 20 per cent in cases due to respiratory ailments in the premier public hospital.

“Many of our known asthmatic patients revisited and some needed hospitalisation. Others apparently healthy also experienced lethargy, dizziness, and burning sensation in the upper respiratory tract. Many of them were young or middle-aged,” Madan added.