Inactivity in the face of crippling air quality is not just choking our lungs but also compromising our future. Delhi’s children are the worst affected, confined to their homes, forced to wear masks when going out, their young lungs subject to a dangerous cocktail of toxic gases and deadly particulate matter.
Pollution directly affects children’s cardiovascular system and can attack the nervous system at an early age, experts say.
Two studies released by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) in 2012 said one quarter of Delhi’s children suffer from upper respiratory diseases and this number was rising alarmingly.
This is primarily because children have underdeveloped immune systems that are not equipped to fight heightened pollution levels, particularly in the winter months when PM2.5 levels max out.
Experts say that pollutants can even impede lung growth in children, which can lead to difficulties in breathing throughout their lives.
It is not just the lungs that are harmed permanently at a young age. Children in Delhi complain of skin irritations and burning eyes that could leave a lasting impact on both organs.
In spite of this direct risk to more than 45 lakh children under the age of 15 in the city, both the central and state governments treat pollution only with emergency measures, making no effort to implement permanent solutions.
It is high time this stops. The stakes are simply too high.
I feel suffocated. I can’t go out in the open anymore. Why do I have to be fully covered before I step out?
These are some of the things that kids in and around Delhi have been complaining of since the ‘airocalypse’, which saw the national capital and its satellite towns wrapped in a haze of pollution for days. Restricted indoors and faced with breathing difficulties, the city’s children were among those affected the most.
In the recent months, Delhi’s air quality has been crippling at best and toxic at worst. With an increasing number of people across the country feeling the brunt of pollution, India now seems to be headed for the dubious title of ‘World’s Pollution Capital’. In a city like Delhi, which has 45,65,319 children under the age of 15, this translates into a threat to the future.
With the increase in breathing difficulties and allergies, parents are now scrambling for solutions – and there aren’t many. Air purifiers and masks are among the few available options but these are neither economical nor effective in the long run. On one hand the city’s upper class is digging deeper into its pockets to ensure safe air for their children and on the other there are those who have no option but to watch their children inhale toxins each day. Many say that Delhi is a city of opportunities, they have now started wondering ‘at what cost?’
The cost of pollution
“My daughter has a persistent cough. Of course it is related to the bad air quality. It is choking my kids,” says Chitra Biswas, a resident of Krishna Nagar. Her daughter Archisha, who studies in Class 11, says she finds it difficult to breathe each time she steps out of her house. “When I go for tuitions, I can see smoke and haze. It burns my eyes and makes it difficult to breathe. I may have to get a mask soon. My mom does not let me go out any more,” says Archisha.
She is not the only one who has been trapped indoors because of the bad air. Vanita Verma, a resident of Gurgaon, whose two daughters are studying at the American Embassy School, says she has no choice but to take extreme steps. “My kids wear masks when they go to school and their school has air purifiers. Once they get back home, they are not allowed to leave the house where I have installed air purifiers. I have no other way to ensure that they are breathing clean air,” she says.
Doctors say the immune system of very young children is not fully developed, making them more susceptible to pollution. “The breathing rate of children is higher than adults. The amount of air they take in, corresponding to their lung size, is more compared to adults. With the more air they take in, they also take more pollutants,” said Dr Anant Mohan, pulminologist at AIIMS.
- Why children are more susceptible to pollution? The immune system is not fully developed in very young children. So their resistance to diseases and infections is weak. Also, children breathe faster than adults, corresponding to their lung size. The breathing rate goes further up when the children are playing. The more the air they take in, the more pollutants reach their respiratory system.
- How children are affected by pollution? Pollution can affect the development of children’s lungs adversely. There are studies which show that children who grew up in highly polluted areas had less developed lungs. So, if you take 1,000 children in Delhi and compare their lung capacity to 1,000 children in a city that does not have as much air pollution, our children will definitely have less lung capacity. In addition to this, children are also susceptible to all the problems that affects adults. Therefore, problems such as upper airways infection, aggravation of asthma are also affecting children. In long run, on sustained exposure, the young also run the risk of contracting cardiovascular diseases. Skin and eye problems are also common.
- What precautions can parents take to ensure that their children stay safe? This is really difficult. You cannot really avoid going out, or to school. One thing that can Be done is if the air quality is really Bad, like it was post Diwali in Delhi, children should not Be allowed to play outside. They should also wear N95 masks, especially when travelling. If they take the school Bus, or auto to school, insist on masks. Air purifiers should Be used at home. Masks and air purifiers are not meant to be long term solutions, But for the now, they are the only answers.
Prarthana Borah, director of the Indian division of Clean Air Asia, an international organisation that specialises in air quality and air pollution, says there is little that parents can do to reduce the risk of exposure. A mother herself, Borah feels anxious. “What is the alternative here? I let my child out in the toxic air, which can potentially kill her? Yes, I could get her a mask. But this is not very effective either. You have to breathe ‘harder’ when using a mask, which can stress your lungs. Masks are not advised for long term use.”
Dr Mohan agrees that masks, especially the popular N95, may not be a long term solution. “N95 masks fit tight on your face. The mask’s filters make normal breathing difficult ,” he says.
Dr Mohan says it is a tricky situation for parents. “If the air quality is really bad, like it was post Diwali in Delhi, they have restrict the movement of their children make them wear N95 masks and install air purifiers at home.”
Prarthana’s daughter Tanya, like most other children her age, is not happy about the new lock in hours at home. She says she used to enjoy walking to tuitions but is not allowed anymore. “I took pride in doing my little bit for the environment that way. But now, my mom is worried about the air and does not allow me to walk to tuitions. My brother is upset too. He has been asked not to go for his cricket training sessions,” Tanya said.
Besides lung damage and related breathing problems, the city’s toxic air also causes skin allergies, ear infections, weak immunity and cognitive impairment. “I have a sensitive skin. I get acne regularly. However, the breakouts are more severe when the air quality is bad. Dust and other pollutants irritate my skin,” said Tanya. Archisha also has similar skin problems. “I have been wearing full sleeves clothes now. I am worried that my skin will be affected because of the pollution,” Archisha said.
But several families cannot provide the protection that parents of Tanya and Archisha can afford. An N95 mask can cost up to ?2,000, and filters for air purifiers cost about ?5,000. Delhi has a huge population of children who are defenceless against pollution.
Alok, who lives in Sonia Vihar and studies in the nearby government school, says the pollution bothers him too but there is nothing he can do about it. “Yes, it (the air) irritates me a little. It irritates my eyes,” he said.
The Delhi government shut down schools for three days when the air quality had reached alarming levels this month. Children complain that not only did they have to stay locked indoors during those days but also missed out on important school days.
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Besides restricting the time children spend outside, parents are also taking care to keep their kids away from smoke. Health experts say buying leadfree toys and keeping potted plants can also go a long way in reducing exposure to pollution. “The onus to ensure a better and cleaner today and tomorrow for our children is on us, not just the government. Just take a look at the scene outside any school, when the kids are being let off. The number of cars and vehicles is astounding. Even simple steps like making use school buses mandatory would make a huge difference,” says Prarthana.