A recent study found that exposure to air pollution could lead to decreased lung function, with a high incidence of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases. We spoke to a pulmonologist to understand how to counter the possible health drawbacks of the situation.
While seasonal variations add to the air pollution during summer and monsoon, recent studies show that the concentration of tiny particulate matter in the air continues to remain high even after seasons move on. According to Dr S. A. Rafi, consultant pulmonologist at Care Hospitals, those vulnerable to lung diseases can still manage their health smartly by checking air quality and taking preventive steps such as keeping medicines handy to deal with any untoward situation.
How does air pollution during the monsoon seasons affect those commuting on the roads?
It was earlier believed that air pollution affects the worst during winter seasons only. While winters are a month of severe air pollution, we have been observing similar effects during the months of summer and monsoon too.
Those exposed to vehicular pollution during the monsoons, owing to long hours of commute as well as those staying close to main roads where vehicular movement is heavy and very regular, are found to suffer from decreased lung function, asthma and other respiratory diseases. In fact, we’ve also come to understand that sulphur dioxide irritates the eyes, nose and throat, and that one could suffer from severe lung problems such as asthma, bronchitis, emphysema and lung cancer.
In addition, nitrogen dioxide from the vehicular pollution damages lung tissue and can restrict airways and cause emphysema. Carbon monoxide, which is another residue of vehicular pollution can lead to damage of the heart and central nervous system, headaches, dizziness, convulsions and death.
Is the increasing outdoor pollution becoming a major problem as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma and other respiratory disorders set in because of it?
Air pollution is a significant risk factor for multiple health conditions, including respiratory infections, heart disease and lung cancer. The health effects caused by air pollution may include a difficulty in breathing and cause wheezing, coughing and aggravation of existing respiratory and cardiac conditions. These effects can result in increased use of medication and increased doctor or emergency-room visits.
The pollution particles in India have more concentration of chemicals because of the burning of agricultural and municipal wastes. How does this impact the human body?
Some of these gases can seriously and adversely affect the health:
Tobacco smoke: It generates a wide range of harmful chemicals and is a major cause of ill health as it is known to cause cancer.
Biological pollutants: These are mostly allergens that can cause asthma, hay fever and other allergic diseases.
Volatile organic compounds: These can cause irritation of the eye, nose and throat. In severe cases, there may even be headaches, nausea and loss of coordination. In the long run, some of these are suspected to cause damage to the liver and other parts of the body.
Formaldehyde: Exposure causes irritation to the eyes and nose, and may cause allergies in some people.
Lead: Prolonged exposure to lead can cause damage to the nervous system, digestive problems and, in some, cases cause cancer. Its exposure is especially hazardous to small children.
Radon: A radioactive gas that can accumulate inside the house, it originates from the rocks and soil under the house, and its level is dominated by the outdoor air and, to some extent, the other gases being emitted indoors. Exposure to this gas increases the risk of lung cancer.
Ozone: Exposure to this gas makes our eyes itch, burn and water. It has also been associated with increase in respiratory disorders such as asthma. It lowers our resistance to colds and pneumonia.
Oxides of nitrogen: This gas can make children susceptible to respiratory diseases in the winters.
Carbon monoxide (CO): CO combines with haemoglobin to lessen the amount of oxygen that enters our blood through our lungs. The binding with other haemeproteins, causing changes in the function of the affected organs such as the brain and the cardiovascular system as well as a developing foetus.
Sulphur dioxide (SO2): SO2 in the air is caused because of the rise in combustion of fossil fuels. It can oxidise and form sulphuric acid mist. SO2 in the air leads to diseases of the lung and other lung disorders such as wheezing and shortness of breath. Long-term effects are more difficult to ascertain as SO2 exposure is often combined with that of suspended particulate matter (SPM).
SPM: SPM consists of dust, fumes, mist and smoke. The main chemical component of SPM that is of major concern is lead, others being nickel, arsenic and those present in diesel exhaust. These particles, when breathed in, lodge in our lung tissues and cause lung damage and respiratory problems.
With air being common and polluted, what are the precautions that one must take? Apart from medication, what are the other precautionary measures that can be taken to tackle air pollution?
Certain precautions can help you better plan outdoor activities and prevent the effects of air pollution:
Verify the air quality in your area: Before going out or engaging in outdoor activities, get into the habit of verifying the air quality index in your area.
Keep your medication with you: If you have heart or respiratory problems, carry your medication with you when you go outdoors. Properly follow your doctor’s instructions so that you can keep your symptoms under control.
Avoid areas where the air is polluted: When you are physically active, you breathe deeper and faster, putting yourself in greater contact with air pollutants. Therefore, you could limit physical activity and reduce its intensity when you are in a polluted area, such as —busy roads where there is regularly a lot of traffic, industrialised areas
Residential neighbourhoods on winter nights: Many residents in these neighbourhoods operate wood stoves and fireplaces that emit pollutants into the air.
Contribute to the reduction in outdoor air pollution: Use methods of transportation that help reduce the amount of pollutants in the air like public transport, car pool and if access to proper walking space opt for that.