Air pollution and SAFAR advisory: Early warning systems, related ailments and impact on economy

Recently, a study by scientists from SAFAR (System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research) said that in Delhi, pollution-related diseases cost Rs 7,694 crore a year.

During peak air pollution, there is an increase in reporting of lung-related ailments. (File image: IE)

Pollution advisories and health: The problem of air pollution causes issues to most everyone in the northern plains of India, especially those residing in and around Delhi. During this time, pollution leads to a consequential increase in related diseases. Recently, a study by scientists from SAFAR (System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research) said that in Delhi, such diseases cost Rs 7,694 crore a year. The study added that even if a mere 5% of the population suffering from such pollution-related ailments in the national capital were to follow the advisory by SAFAR, this could mean that Rs 1,096 crore could be saved on health expenditure annually, according to a report in IE.

Air pollution early warning systems explained

Talking to Financial Express Online, Dr Pratima Singh, Lead of the Centre for Air Pollution Studies at CSTEP explained the accuracy of early warning systems for air pollution. “Air pollution forecast models are complicated, and depend on multiple variables such as local emissions, wind patterns, pollutant concentrations, and emissions from nearby areas etc. The accuracy of the systems depends upon how accurately and frequently the emission inventory (EI) is maintained and updated, and how other parameters are captured in real time. Given that there is uncertainty in calculating EI itself, uncertainty of up to 10–20% is acceptable. However, these models give a fair understanding of how air pollution would be in the days to come. There are also statistical models in place that predict air pollution scenarios just by using historical data sets and some basic forecasting techniques. These models also give fairly accurate estimates,” Dr Singh said.

“Early warning systems will help businesses/citizens to fix their plans in advance. Companies, for instance, can ask employees to work from home. Restaurants/Malls can estimate their inventory/supplies etc., thereby reducing wastage, and so on. However, business lost due to air pollution is lost and cannot be recovered, and hence, air pollution should be treated as a long-term issue, and we should try to eliminate it completely,” Dr Pratima added.

Ailments due to air pollution

Dr Vivek Anand Padegal, Director – Pulmonology, Fortis Hospitals, Bannerghatta Road, Bengaluru, said, “Air pollution can cause multiple medical conditions including cardiovascular disorders such as heart disease, hypertension, and strokes. It increases the rate of pulmonary disorders such as asthma, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis. It also can increase preterm birth, low birth rate, maternal and fetal illness.”

Dr Vipul Rustgi, MBBS MD Medicine, Consultant physician and Diabetologist, Apollo Spectra, Delhi, said, “Air pollution can invite a plethora of health problems that can steal one’s peace of mind. Pollution can impact each and every body part. The harmful pollutants can enter one’s respiratory system causing distress. Thus, one will encounter issues such as sore and irritated throat, breathing difficulties, asthma, bronchitis, wheezing, cough, pneumonia, lung fibrosis, lung cancer, bronchiolitis, stuffy nose, nasal congestion, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) that can make it difficult for you to carry on with your daily activities with ease. It may affect the heart leading to heart attacks and stroke. One may also encounter symptoms like nausea, chest pain, confusion, vomiting, and dizziness. Apart from that, the dangerous pollution can take a toll on the eyes leading to redness, burning, itching, and swelling. Long-term exposure to air pollution when it comes to pregnant women can lead to preterm delivery.”

Aggravation of ailments due to air pollution

“Worldwide, the health effects of air pollution remain a public hazard and a matter of concern. What one typically thinks of as air pollution is a mixture of small particles, with Ozone being one of them. At a high atmosphere, Ozone protects us from the harmful ultraviolet radiation, but on a ground level, when these gases come in contact with sunlight, it turns into a respiratory irritant, which we commonly refer to as smog. Breathing ozone can trigger a lot of existing health problems, including congestion, chest pain, and throat irritation. Ozone aids in reduced lung function and inflames the lung lining. Constant exposure may even permanently scar the lung tissue. Ozone concentrations and its day-to-day variations have been known to exert acute effects and also worsen asthma. Additionally, patients with pre-existing respiratory diseases are at constant risk because ozone may also interact with the underlying disease which in turn, reduces the patient’s pulmonary reserve,” Dr Pankaj Gulati, Pulmonologist, Shalby Multispecialty Hospitals Jaipur.

Dr Sachet Dawar, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Respiratory Medicine, Noida International Institute of Medical Sciences and Noida International University, said “Patients with pre-existing respiratory disorders such as bronchial asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and respiratory allergic disorders experience a significant increase in their symptoms due to air pollution. They often require enhanced doses of inhalers and other medications. Some of them land-up with severe respiratory distress or exacerbation in hospital emergencies. These patients then are treated with nebulization, antibiotics, injectable steroids and may even require ventilator support in ICU setup.”

Trend around lung-related cases during periods of peak air pollution

“For people with pre-existing lung conditions and allergies, it can get worse with the increase in airborne pollution. The particles and gases in the atmosphere cause conditions like COPD, asthma, and allergies causing exacerbations. It can worsen breathing in patients with pre-existing lung and heart conditions. During times of increase in pollution, we see frequent outpatient visits to the hospital, increased hospitalizations, and decreased quality of life. It was striking during the lockdown with decreased pollution levels, many of these patients had the best control symptoms in years,” Dr Padegal said.

According to Dr Gulati, “Air pollution is the leading cause of many deadly lung-related diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and lung cancer. Moreover, during peak air pollution, the general population is likely to have alarming rates of respiratory problems such as shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, asthma episodes and chest pain. It remains a major threat for places with very high traffic levels and pollution rates. This is a prominent trend across all the big cities in the country. According to IQAir, in 2019, as part of a worldwide survey, it was discovered that 21 out of the 30 most polluted cities were in India. As a result, the Indian population continues to be diagnosed with a plethora of lung-related cases, and the development of lung conditions that are both acute and chronic continues to plague patients. Furthermore, from an international lens, according to WHO, air pollution remains the second leading cause of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), and the leading cause of pneumonia in children under five. All these trends remain indicators of the many far reaching problems caused by the hazard of air pollution.”

“As per research studies conducted globally there is an overall increase in incidence of lung-related cases ever since the industrialization began. Air pollution is mainly linked to human activities such as construction, mining, vehicular exhaust, stubble burning, deforestation and hundreds of other manufacturing processes. Tobacco smoking and indoor air pollution due to biomass fuel and poor ventilation add on to reasons causing decline in lung health of general public. Thus, there is a rising trend of lung diseases in period of peak air pollution leading to poor health, loss of lives & livelihood and surmounting healthcare costs,” said Dr Dawar.

Impact of air pollution on economy

Dr Pratima Singh said, “Air pollution primarily affects human health. India, being a service-oriented country, can see a decrease in human productivity, which could cause some serious damage to the economy. Below are a few sectors that are most likely to be disrupted due to the economic implications:

  • IT /Services industry—Lost Labour Productivity (Absenteeism/Presentism)/Labour retention (Employees may not even prefer to work in polluted areas)
  • Tourism Industry—tourists preferring other places to avoid pollution
  • Local Businesses (Restaurants/shopping malls etc.)—reduction in consumer footfalls (people preferring to stay indoors/at home due to pollution).”

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