A dense blanket of fog envelops Anand Vihar in Delhi.(HT file photo
On the morning of November 8, Delhi reached the alarming mark of 999 on the air quality index, a score which is labelled as ‘severe’, and which forced the Delhi government to declare a public health emergency in the city. In the past few months, multiple cities in North India, including Lucknow, Kanpur, Varanasi and Patna witnessed a dramatic dip in the quality of air. Apart from the issue of reduced visibility, this change in air quality can also have adverse effects on the lives of the residents.
The exposure to smog, a deadly combination of smoke and fog found in urban areas, can cause multiple health complications in individuals, including an increased risk of developing lung cancer, according to recent studies. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a research branch of World Health Organisation, has now classified outdoor pollution as a carcinogen i.e. a cancer-causing agent.
“Air pollution is one of the prominent reasons that can increase the risk of lung cancer. Over the last couple of years, I have seen a huge number of patients, especially women who are non-smokers and do not have a genetic history of lung cancer, but are diagnosed with the disease,” says Dr Manish Singhal, senior consultant for Medical Oncology in Apollo Hospital.
While exposure to smoke, both direct and passive, remains one of the leading causes of lung cancer, research has proven that contact with carcinogens like pesticides, arsenic, and other harmful particulate matter found in the polluted air of major cities can also increase the risk of developing the chronic disease. “The air pollution in urban areas is akin to inhaling multiple cigarettes simultaneously,” remarks Dr Kumar Prabhash, Professor of Medical Oncology at TATA Memorial Hospital.
Unfortunately, the problem is not limited to cities. “In the rural areas, resources like wood and dung which are used for cooking, can put families at risk of developing the disease,” explains Dr. Kumar.
According to a 2012 WHO report, one in eight global deaths was caused due to air pollution. Hence, it becomes critical to take strong measures to check the environmental health risk. “Reducing emissions should be a combined effort made by the government, industry and the public,” says Dr. Sankar Srinivasan, consultant medical oncologist, Apollo Hospital, Chennai.
“My advice to the residents of the affected areas is to wear a N95 mask whenever they are exposed to the external environment. Patients who are suffering from breathing problems should visit their nearest hospital; we usually prescribe a dose of steroids and with nebulization that can be beneficial,” says Dr. Singhal.
The month-long nightmare of worsening air quality is far from over. With the approaching winter, the quality of air in North India is expected to deteriorate further.
Follow these steps to protect yourself from toxic air.
- Limit your outdoor activities and avoid overexerting yourself
- Place air purifying plants like aloe vera, peace lily and English ivy in your house or invest in good quality air purifiers
- Keep your rooms well-ventilated to prevent congested space within the house
- Avoid consuming junk food, and eat meals rich in Vitamin C and Omega 3 fats to keep your energy levels high
- Individuals with respiratory problems should avoid visiting highly polluted places and seek immediate medical support in case of complications like difficulty in breathing and chest irritation.