A recent study by Greenpeace Southeast Asia on air quality in Chennai has brought back focus on the effect of pollution on the health of residents of the coastal city. According to the report, 11,000 people died due to air pollution-related diseases, and a cost estimator pegging economic loss due to the same at about Rs 1 lakh crore, in 2020 alone.
Speaking to TNM, however, doctors and environmentalists point out that while the numbers reported by Greenpeace are mere estimates, the report is right in saying that immediate action needs to be taken to protect residents from the harmful effects of rapidly deteriorating air quality.
Dr Spoorthi, an American Board-certified Internal Medicine Physician from Promed Hospital in Chennai, states with conviction that the number of patients coming in with air pollution-related complications has seen an upward trend.
"We see that people who have asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) (a chronic inflammatory lung disease that causes obstructed airflow from the lungs) are prone to exaggeration of their conditions. People who smoke are at even higher risk and this is particularly correlating to days when pollution figures are high in the city," she says. "More people are coming in with skin irritation like rashes or eczema if they stay out for too long," she adds.
The doctor has also observed that the cardiovascular health of patients is put at risk by air pollution.
"Even simple ENT (ear, nose, throat) infections and conditions like sinusitis are presenting themselves more seriously on days when pollution in the city (based on air quality index) is high," she explains. "It is already late and we need to act fast to curb pollution."
Dr S Suresh, a Consultant Pulmonologist at Gleneagles Global Health City in Chennai, tells TNM that the effects of irritants last longer in patientsâ€™ systems due to increased pollution. "COPD patients are now coming to our emergency room because their symptoms are becoming more severe. Asthma patients are also coming in because it doesn't get under control immediately," he explains.
The pulmonologist points out that the effects of air pollution on the human body are becoming harder to treat, and require more medical supervision than before.
"Some allergens make airways hyper-responsive. Some patients have bronchial spasms that lead to chest tightening. So immediately they have to take nebulisation or the inhaler prescribed. In spite of that, if they don't see any improvement, then they have to visit the hospital immediately so we can give high steroids and other medical intervention," he explains.
"Amongst the people at high risk are pregnant women. They inhale ultra-fine particles. It goes into the bloodstream and the liver from there, and causes problems for the foetus when it reaches the placenta. During the time of delivery, they are at risk of giving birth to low-weight babies or pre-term babies. The children may also develop cardiac problems. The other highly affected group are asthmatic children below the age of 5," he adds.
Governmentâ€™s recognition of the problem
Given the increase in health risks due to deteriorating air quality, activists allege that public policy has not addressed the issue adequately.
"We need to focus on the problem itself and not numbers. Whether one person died or 11,000, if the loss of life was preventable, it should not have happened," says environmentalist Shwetha Narayanan about the Greenpeace study. "Air pollution in general in Tamil Nadu, Chennai and other cities is not being taken seriously by the state or central government. The National Clean Air Programme in Tamil Nadu includes only one cityâ€”Thoothukudi,â€ť she alleges, adding that the air quality in the state is probably worse than the numbers suggest, given that Tamil Nadu is among the top five industrialised states in India.
Environmentalists allege that Tamil Nadu is being neglected by the Union government, given the lack of recognition to the fact that poor air quality is harming people. They stress on the need for allocation funds to create awareness programmes, bring about policy changes to reduce pollution from industries and better traffic management. Only recognising the problem, say environmentalists, can lead to the path for a solution.
"In Chennai, we continue to set up polluting industries and activities that will reduce air quality. The expansion of industries in north Chennai, fly ash pollution from power plants and the lack of a network of monitors to record air quality levels show the lack of will to improve the situation," Shwetha explains. "Chennai also has dense vehicular traffic. We know the sources but there is no action to control the pollution from these sources. The Delhi Pollution Control Board has set up monitors across the capital to record air quality. In Chennai, we have four CPCB monitors with data available to public, but that is nowhere enough for a city like this. Even the little data from existing monitors show evidence of pollution. But where is the action in response to this?" she asks.
How can you protect yourself?
Polluting industries, dumping yards, construction sites and vehicular traffic are amongst the largest sources of pollution in Chennai. And while health experts recognise that residents cannot completely avoid exposure, they suggest strategies to reduce the effect of air pollution.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, both doctors tell TNM, there were reduced cases due to air pollution because of reduced vehicular traffic and the enforcement of mask hygiene.
"If you are a healthy individual with no respiratory problems, wearing an N95 or N99 mask and ensuring you get enough exercise and nutrition should help you improve your own immunity," says Dr S Suresh.
Other immediate solutions, according to Dr Spoorthi, are buying an air purifier, if people one can afford it, or plants that will help with indoor pollution. As for outdoor activities, she suggests choosing a time when there is less vehicular traffic and to stay away from high-traffic areas.
"Including vitamins A, C and E in your diet will also be beneficial," she says. "They will help with repair of tissues. decrease inflammation and can aide the body in recovering from environment caused stressors."