Over the years, air pollution has increasingly become a major public health concern the world over. This is especially true in India which is home to three of the top 20 most polluted cities in the world and where air pollution kills more than a million people every year. In fact, according to a Greenpeace India Report, more than 99 percent of India’s population is breathing air that exceeds the World Health Organization’s health-based guidelines with respect to PM 2.5. And while to a lot of us that terminology may seem like an abstract concept, the repercussions of it are very real.
PM2.5 is a type of fine particulate matter, where tiny particles cause the air to appear hazy, making it hard to see especially when levels are elevated. They can occur naturally like dust from a desert or can be manmade like that from factory smoke, agriculture, and fossil fueled-power stations. However, what is important to note about fine particulate matter is that when inhaled, these pollutants can travel deep into the lungs causing exacerbations of respiratory as well as heart diseases. With its most profound impact being on the respiratory system.
And while there is a long list of contributing factors to the increased air pollution levels in the country that can cause irreparable damage to the lungs – not enough is said about occupational air pollution and its impact on the people who are exposed to it daily especially ones with chronic respiratory illnesses like asthma.
Occupational exposure to pollution – Need for awareness
Occupational asthma is a type of asthma where the narrowing, swelling and irritation to the airways are caused due to the inhalation of chemicals, gases, fumes, or other substances that an individual may be exposed to while working. This constant exposure, triggers an allergic or immune system related reaction which like any other type of asthma causes symptoms like chest tightness, wheezing and dyspnea i.e., shortness of breath. Ranging from overexposure of silica dust for a construction site worker, latex and chemicals for a healthcare professional or dust and vehicular emissions for a traffic police – consistent, and long-term exposure can irritate the airways and trigger asthma symptoms like shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, and can even result in an asthma attack. In fact, it has been known to not only exacerbate pre-existing respiratory illnesses, but also lead to newer cases of chronic respiratory diseases.
Take for example a recent case in Chandigarh, where a now 35-year-old traffic policeman was suffering from severe chronic respiratory symptoms like shortness of breath, coughing, and wheezing at the start of his career when he was just about 29. Constant exposure to pollutants from busy roads, traffic ridden intersections through every change in season, had left his respiratory tract vulnerable and in need of serious care. Assuming it was just a passing infection, he spent three years self-medicating. Unfortunately, that just worsened the problem and almost led to him leaving a profession he took great pride in.
However, with some friendly advice, he decided to get a proper assessment from a pulmonologist. Considering, his history as well as profession he was given a lung function test, which led to a diagnosis of asthma and was then consequently prescribed an inhaler. He was initially surprised and a little bit hesitant by the diagnosis and treatment, as he was afraid it might restrict his ability to perform his duty. Fortunately, with the right information, guidance, and education – now, six years later – he is still a proud member of his city’s traffic police force. He has been adhering to the inhalation therapy as advised and has been able to manage his condition effectively.
Like him there are plenty of stories where symptoms are ignored, and conditions go undiagnosed purely because of lack of awareness about triggers associated with asthma or the disease itself.
Precautions for people exposed to occupational exposure to asthma
Therefore, while awareness and avoiding triggers is one way to prevent symptoms, or exacerbations seeking medical intervention as early as possible is pivotal to managing any respiratory condition. Occupational asthma is diagnosed much like any other type of asthma, with a peak flow measurement being one of the most important tools for diagnosis. A peak flow meter assesses how fast you can push air out of your lungs while exhaling. It helps understand the strength of your lungs and the openness of the airways. Additionally, an added layer of identifying what workplace substance maybe causing your symptoms could be conducted through an allergy skin prick test. Finally, considering that asthma and triggers can change over time it’s important to consult with your doctor to devise the best possible treatment plan. Keeping these things in mind, here are a few key points to remember that can help you manage your asthma and help reduce the triggers associated with the occupational exposure to air pollutants:
- Have an asthma action plan in place in consultation with your doctor that is specific to one’s condition, their workplace, lifestyle, and environment is extremely important
- Adhere to the inhalation therapy as prescribed by the doctor, irrespective of the presence of symptoms to avoid a potential asthma attack due to workplace triggers.
- Keep a quick relief inhaler as per your doctor’s recommendation
- Wearing a mask is one of the most effective ways to reduce inhalation of pollutants, dust, germs, and other components that can irritate the airways
- Have regular medical check-ups and monitor your lung health with a peak flow meter to identify any potential lung damage caused by irritant exposure
- Use industrial hygiene techniques that are appropriate for the type of irritant you are exposed to and that will keep exposure levels to a minimum.
(The author is a Medical Director & Senior Pulmonologist, Jindal Chest Clinics, Chandigarh, Chandigarh. The article is for informational purposes only. Please consult medical experts and health professionals before starting any therapy, medication and/or remedy. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the FinancialExpress.com.)