As Delhi records ‘severe’ air quality for the sixth consecutive day, NDTV spoke to Dr Arvind Kumar, chairman of Institute of Chest Surgery at Medanta Gurugram, on the risks due to the toxic air, who is the most vulernable and the right kind of masks to protect yourself from this poisonous air.
What Is Impact Of Prolonged Exposure To Toxic Air?
“It’s killing all of us, to say the least. Let’s start with pregnant ladies. Whether it’s first, second or third trimester, babies are getting badly affected. Toxins going into pregnant mother’s lungs are getting absorbed by blood and affecting the foetus. Newborns have been exposed to the equivalent of 25-30 cigarettes a day. They would be having swelling on windpipes, lungs and impact on their whole body. Patients operated by us are now coming back with bronchitis, pneumonia and asthmatic tendencies. These are only respiratory effects, there are cardio-vascular and neurological effects too.”
What Does ‘Severe’ Air Mean?
AQI is derived from the value of six particulate and gaseous matter in the air. The main factor is PM2.5. It is the most damaging of all the particles. PM2.5 passes the nose and throat barrier, goes into the lungs, gets deposited there and gets absorbed into the blood. PM2.5 and smaller particles are critical when it comes to damage to lungs and the rest of the body. Apart from that, gases too cause damage.
Who Is Most Vulnerable?
Everyone who is breathing is vulnerable. The most are newborns. An adult breathes about 12-14 times a minute, an infant 40 times a minute. When you are breathing faster, you have that much air going into your body. Infants have a far higher exposure than adults. Secondly, infants have growing tissues. When a chemical attacks a growing tissue, the damage will be far more than tissues of adults that are already developed. The other group severely affected are the elderly because their immunity is low so they have higher chances of contracting pneumonia and other problems. This is not to say that adults are not affected.
What About People With Co-Morbidities?
Suppose you have been suffering from diabetes, that reduces your immunity. Or you have suffered from cancer for which you might have taken immunotherapy, chemotherapy etc, that lowers your immunity. Suppose you are on steroids or chemotherapy medicines or you are suffering from conditions such as kidney disease, liver disease, chronic respiratory disease, that weakens the system. So, the most vulnerable are the COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pumonary Disease) group. People who have been smokers for a long time have COPD in which lungs become very weak. When a COPD person is exposed to this air, the risk of developing pneumonia and of dying from it is many times higher from an adult without COPD.
Will Shutting Schools Keep Children Safe?
Air inside the house is more or less the same as outside air. However, the pollution levels near highways, roads or industrial areas are much higher. When the children go to school, two problems occur. Schools start in the morning when pollution levels are the highest. When children go to school, they will run, play, no matter how much you try. When they run, their respiratory rates are higher. So, they take in more toxic air. That’s the reason why schools are shut. But it’s a knee-jerk reaction, not a long-term solution. It’s very sad that this has been happening for eight years and we have not been able to take long-term measures.
What About Those Who Can’t Stay At Home
Actually, there is nothing they can do except pray, that God, I am going to breathe 25,000 times in the next 24 hours this air that has inhuman levels of pollutants, please keep me safe. What are the solutions? Maybe move away from a highly polluted area, but where will you go? Air is the same everywhere.
Will Masks Help?
The surgical mask or a cloth mask does not help as far as air pollution is concerned. N95 does protect you, provided you cover your nose and mouth completely. It protects you from particulate matter, but the gaseous matter still goes in. That’s the only thing which a person who has to go out for his livelihood can do. But he should avoid walking fast or doing any exercises. Otherwise, you will feel breathless and may even choke. Never exercise with N95 mask on. Also, you cannot wear it constantly. But those who are asthmatic or suffer from COPD cannot wear these masks for long because they feel choked and uncomfortable. Children too remove it. Masks should not be proposed as a solution to pollution, neither is air purifier a solution.
Do Air Purifiers Help?
If anyone says air purifier is a solution to pollution, the answer is a big no. However, I will make a few exceptions. So how does an air purifier help? An air purifier is like an air conditioner which sucks in air from your room, makes it pass through a mechanical filter, usually HEPA filter, and then the air is thrown back into the room. For this to be effective, the room has to be sealed, closed, windows and doors have to be shut. Also, the air handling capacity of the unit has to match the size of the room and the filter has to be proper. Then, it traps the particulate matter, but only as long as doors and windows are closed.
Is It Safe To Exercise Indoors?
Even strenous exercise indoors must be avoided unless you can ensure better air quality inside. After all, the air outside comes inside too.