'Exposure to Air Pollution Changes the Way Our Airways Behave’: Surge in Respiratory Symptoms in Delhi

Apart from the detrimental health impact, the economic toll of air pollution on India is staggering. The World Economic Forum estimates an annual cost of $95 billion, or 3% of India's GDP.

New Delhi: The national capital’s air quality has reached alarming levels, with adverse consequences not only on public health but also on the economic front.

Delhi’s environment minister Gopal Rai on November 8 held a meeting with a team from IIT Kanpur to discuss the possibility of artificial rainfall through cloud seeding to bring down the AQI (air quality index) in the city.

It was decided that artificial rain could be used in Delhi on November 20-21 if the weather is cloudy.

The pollution crisis in Delhi is primarily attributed to vehicular emissions, industrial activities, and crop burning in neighboring states. The concentration of harmful pollutants such as PM2.5 and PM10 particles has surged, leading to respiratory issues, cardiovascular problems, and a general decline in the overall well-being of the populace.

Intense air pollution exposure is changing the way our airways behave

Many healthy people have also complained of the new onset symptom of cough, breathlessness, chest tightness, fatigue, headache, eye irritation, and sneezing. “This is not something new. This is what we see during this season. We have been seeing it for the last many years,” Dr. Karan Madan, additional professor, Department of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), told The Wire.

“The way we see these symptoms when air quality goes down does tend to point out that these symptoms are related to worsening air pollution,” he said, when asked if we can attribute these symptoms to a decline in air quality.

“Healthy people get cough, hacking cough, allergies. We treat them just the way we treat asthma. Asthma is an allergic condition. Those healthy people who develop these symptoms, and are responding to inhaled steroids, it won’t be incorrect to say that [air pollution] is triggering asthma-like conditions or probably allergic conditions in healthy people. Many times their hacking cough also requires some treatments with steroids. It does mean that this intense air pollution exposure makes some changes in the way our airways behave,” he said.

Talking about the nature of respiratory illnesses, he said: “We have been consistently noticing for the last many years that when viral infection is going on, we know that. But during these episodes, you don’t find any viral, which is cause of the exacerbation. When the air quality goes down, many people start complaining of these acute respiratory symptoms.”

“For heart patients, it may be more harmful. There are studies to show that air pollution increases the risk of BP; hypertension increases. An increase in BP is not good for any heart patient. Data says very poor air quality is not good for patients with cardiac disease,” he added.

He said that a substantial number of patients with airway diseases, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), who are under the hospital follow-up, have reported a notable deterioration in their symptoms. Complaints include increased wheeziness, heightened breathlessness, and a greater need for inhalers.

The severity has escalated to acute asthma attacks, leading to hospitalizations and necessitating intensified treatments, including the administration of oral steroids. The overall frequency of asthma exacerbations or attacks has shown a notable increase.

“Many have had acute asthma attacks, some of which required hospitalisations, and some have required escalation of their treatments. We had to give them oral steroids. Asthma exacerbation or attacks have increased,” he said.

Former AIIMS director and senior pulmonologist Dr. Randeep Guleria told news agency ANI that people with no respiratory diseases are also facing breathing issues.

“Respiratory problems may increase in people with diseases like bronchitis or heart problems, resulting in decreased oxygen saturation and increased emergency visits. In OPD too, more patients with a complaint of breathing are coming. Hospitalisation, ICU admissions, and OPD referrals are increasing in patients and also in those people who are normal and have no disease,” Dr. Guleria told the news agency.

Also read: Delhi Air Pollution: Working Class Stays Outdoors Despite Health Issues, Sees a Cut in Pay

Impact on the economy

Air pollution is the second biggest factor affecting human health in India, according to the World Air Quality Report 2022, prepared by Swiss organisation IQAir. The report was released globally in March 2022.

According to the World Economic Forum, the problem of air pollution costs the Indian economy $95 billion per year. Therefore, there’s a need to reduce air pollution to increase economic growth.

“We found that if India had achieved safe air quality levels in 2019, its GDP would have increased by $95 billion, or 3%, as Indian businesses would face lower costs and higher revenues. This means there was potential to return a value equal to 50% of all tax collected annually, or 150% of India’s healthcare budget. Bringing clean air to India benefits the economy and businesses through lower absenteeism, higher on-the-job productivity, higher consumer footfall and lower premature mortality,” it said in June 2021.