Beware, there’s danger in the air

Air pollution in the Indian national capital and metro cities is dangerously high and rising, affecting children’s respiratory health and brain development

Can you sense the danger in the air? The residents of Delhi certainly can. The air quality in India’s national capital city has deteriorated to such an extent that Sarath Guttinkinda, one of India’s top pollution researchers, reportedly said: “If you have the option don’t raise your children in Delhi.” He has since moved his family out of Delhi to protect his two young children. Breathing the capital city’s air is akin to “smoking 50 cigarettes a day”, say doctors.

Dr. Sanjeev Bagai, a Delhi-based paediatrician, notes that asthma cases among children have increased   by 40-45 percent during the past five years. “Not too long ago, only children above three or four years suffered from asthma. Now it’s common for infants and toddlers to be diagnosed with asthma. Constant inhalation of toxic air affects young children’s lungs severely, and lowered oxygen levels caused by breathing difficulties can lead to long-term problems with vision, growth and brain development,” he says.

In November 2017, the US State Department certified Delhi as the world’s most polluted city. According to WHO statistics, India has the world’s highest mortality rate from respiratory diseases — 159 deaths per 100,000 in 2012, twice that of China. Flavia Bustreo, assistant director general at the World Health Organisation (WHO), says: “When dirty air blankets our cities the most vulnerable urban citizens — the youngest, oldest and poorest — are most impacted.”

Impact on children
A December 2017 study by the Division of Data, Re- search and Policy of Unicef found that air pollution affects the brain development of young children. The report highlights that it impacts cognitive outcomes in children leading to reduced verbal and nonverbal IQ, memory and test scores as also other neurological behavioural problems. Unicef suggests minimising children’s exposure to pollutants to counter air pollution.

The Kolkata-based Chittaranjan National Cancer Institute and WHO conducted an extensive three-year study in October 2012 on the effects of air pollution on children in India. Researchers found that key indicators of respiratory health, lung function and blood pressure in children aged four-17 years in Delhi were far worse than that of children elsewhere. Alveolar macrophages or AM (dam- age to dust cells in the lung that ‘clean’ up microorganisms and dust particles) was two-three times more frequent in Delhi school children than in rural children. This high AM number indicates that children in the nation’s capital have greater exposure to particulate pollution, as AM represents the first line of cellular defence against inhaled pollutants. Additionally, about 15 percent of children reported frequent eye irritation, 27.4 percent headaches, 11.2 percent experienced nausea, 7.2 percent heart palpitations and 12.9 percent chronic fatigue. The study concluded that about half of the 4.4 million children who reside in Delhi already suffer irreversible lung damage.

Among the major causes of the dangerously high levels of pollution in Delhi and India’s other major metros is increasing vehicular traffic. “India’s cities including Delhi are experiencing a mobility crisis — the use of private vehicles is soaring while public transportation has suffered chronic under-invest-ment. This is the main cause of rising air pollution. For instance 70,000 trucks drive through Delhi everyday as the government has been stalling its plans to build a bypass for years. Meanwhile, young children walk to school daily along traffic-congested roads, breathing in extremely high doses of toxic chemicals and polluting nano-particles,” says Anumita Choudhury of the Centre for Science and environment, Delhi.

Fighting air pollution
Dr. Suresh Kumar, a Cochin-based  respiratory  special- ist, advises parents to ensure that children use well-fitting nasal masks, travel minimally when pollution levels are at their highest, and eat foods rich in proteins and vitamins to boost immunity.

Increasingly, many households in Delhi and elsewhere are opting to install air purifiers in homes. Yet, a cheaper and perhaps, much more effective option to reduce toxins in the air are trees and plants.  Plants reduce carbon dioxide levels, increase humidity, reduce the impact of pollutants such as benzene and nitrogen dioxide, and reduce airborne dust levels. A massive planting drive on public roads can help not only to lower air pollution but also reduce noise. While plants in general act as air puri- fiers, some are more beneficial than others. These include the Areca Palm (chrysalidocarpus lutescens), Lady Palm (rhapis excelsa), Bamboo Palm (chamaedorea seifrizii), and the Rubber plant (ficus robusta).

According to noted scientist Dr. B.C. Wolverton who conducted extensive research on the benefits of houseplants, they are the best filters of common pollutants such as ammonia, form aldehyde, and benzene which are released by furniture, carpets, and building material, and then trapped (inside houses/buildings) by closed ventilation systems, leading to a host of respiratory and allergic reactions. In his book, How to Grow Fresh Air: 50 House Plants that Purify your Home or Office (1997), he rates each plant for its effectiveness in removing pollutants, and ease of growth and maintenance.

While plants act as natural air purifiers, yoga can help   us breathe better, believes Yogi Anoop of the Chaitanya Foundation, Mediyoga, Delhi. “Yoga helps to increase lung capacity and stops toxins from entering the body. Yogasa- nas like bhastrika pranayama where the breathing mimics bel- lows, don’t allow pollutants to remain in the body for long. The asana removes the toxins before they can be stored,” he says.

Yet while nasal masks, yoga and indoor plants help children fight the nasty effects of pollution, healthcare experts believe that concerted public and government action is required to find lasting solutions to the problem of air pollution which is destroying the health and well-being of future generations.

The article was published in the print version of ParentsWorld February 2018 issue.