Delhi residents develop smokers’ lungs by the age of 35 without ever having smoked because of the city’s alarmingly high pollution levels, increasing their chances of serious lung illnesses such as pneumonia and emphysema.
Doctors say while developing lungs of children can reverse any damage, polluted air progressively scars adult lungs and raises the risk not just of lung diseases but also of cancer. According to Dr Harit Chaturvedi, director, surgical oncology, Max Healthcare, one in seven people diagnosed with lung cancer have never smoked.
“Smokers’ lungs are now common among non-smokers, especially stay-at-home women who live around arterial roads where traffic movement is high,” says Dr Pankaj Sayal, pulmonologist at PSRI Hospital, Saket.
Pollution levels in Delhi have leapt beyond World Health Organisation limits in the past few years largely because of vehicular emissions, prompting green activists to push for a check on cars and commercial vehicles that spout toxic fumes.
Central Pollution Control Board figures show PM2.5, or extremely fine particulate matter that goes deep inside our lungs, is 21 times the permissible limit while extremely harmful nitrogen oxide levels have jumped to 4.5 times the acceptable limit.
“If you’re born and have grown up in Delhi, you are likely to have asthma, respiratory distress or very frequent throat and airway infections by the time you are 35,” says Dr JC Suri, head of the department of respiratory medicine and critical care, Safdarjung Hospital.
“Long-term exposure to fumes in standard traffic from, say, Delhi to Gurgaon, would have a cumulative effect on respiratory, heart, neural, brain and memory functions.”
A decade ago, people went to chest clinics with complaints of simple allergies but with the spike in pollution, people are turning up with stubborn infections that need strong antibiotics or hospitalisation.
Rakesh Kumar, 40, who works in the sales and marketing division of a multinational company, consulted Dr Sayal last year with complains of a persistent cough which was diagnosed as a seasonal allergy. When the symptoms persisted and he developed fever, he was asked to undergo a chest X-ray which showed a huge infection patch in his left lung.
“Though he’s never smoked, the bacterial infection was one usually found among smokers and despite strong antibiotics, it took him months to get better. It’s all because of pollution because when he visited his hometown, Bareilly, his recovery accelerated,” says Dr Sayal.
Doctors say people living in hilly areas and the countryside, where the air is less toxic, have cleaner lungs than people in Delhi.
According to a 2013 Indian Journal of Community Medicine report, lung function is lowered by 40.3% in Delhi residents compared with 20.1% in rural West Bengal. Lung-function deficits in Delhi residents were three times those in Bengal.
“We don’t have data to establish a direct link between pollution and lung cancer, but pollution is certainly a major contributing risk factor,” says Dr Chaturvedi.