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Delhi’s roads are hubs of life-threatening pollutants

While a person spends four hours on an average on travelling, there are thousands who have to spend up to seven hours on the roads every day. It is the streets where they earn their living and where they are also exposed to dust and toxic vehicular emissions.

Breathless in Delhi Updated: Dec 08, 2016 15:47 IST
Sweta Goswami
Sweta Goswami
Hindustan Times
Pollution,Delhi,Delhi Pollution
Traffic policeman wears a pollution mask due to heavy smog and air pollution in New Delhi.(PTI Photo)

An hour ahead of sunrise, Ashok Kumar, a 55-year-old auto driver, is getting ready for his daily round of water therapy. “It is lukewarm water mixed with some salt,” he says raising a stainless steel glass in the air. He drinks around 10 glasses of saline water every morning and induces vomiting using his fingers. Inside his two-room house, his wife and children are unperturbed by the sound of retching. They are used to the practice which is popular among auto-rickshaw drivers.

“I learnt it from a fellow auto driver. As we are on the road amid all the pollution, cough is something which troubles us throughout the year. Doing this helps get rid of it,” says Kumar who has been driving an auto-rickshaw for two decades.

While a person spends four hours on an average on travelling, there are thousands who have to spend up to seven hours on the roads every day. It is the streets where they earn their living and where they are also exposed to dust and toxic vehicular emissions. Auto-rickshaw drivers, vendors and traffic cops have no choice but to bear with it. Among these, auto-rickshaw drivers are at maximum risk as they tend to stay on the roads for the longest duration often running up to 12 hours. Traffic cops have a shift of eight hours as do DTC bus drivers. Street vendors stay on longer for about 9-10 hours. Waiting at traffic junctions behind buses and cars, auto-rickshaw drivers are the ones who are directly and almost immediately exposed to vehicular emissions.

A day in the life of an auto-driver

Kumar says the early morning ritual of drinking nearly 2 litres of water on empty stomach and then puking is what most autowallahs do to fight off the effects of pollution. Pulmonologists, however, say the technique, known as Kunjal Kriya in Yogic terms, is primarily aimed at improving the digestive system and only has indirect benefit in cases of chronic cough. It temporarily reduces chest pain and throws out cough, they said.

By 8am, Kumar leaves in search of his first customer of the day. His children will get to meet him only at around 10 pm, sometimes even later, and the same routine will follow the next day. The death of his friend Veer Singh, also an auto driver, came as a wake up call three years ago. “His illness and then his death were an eye opener. I never knew pollution does so much harm to our health. But, riding an auto is all I know. It’s the only way I can earn,” Kumar said.

Some time back he started complaining of breathlessness, and went for an X-Ray. “The doctor showed black spots on my lungs. He asked if I am an alcoholic or smoker. When I denied, he asked me about my work. Later, he said it is because of constant exposure to pollution and gave me medicines.”

HT consulted a specialist in respiratory medicine, allergy and sleep disorder to understand Kumar’s condition and found he suffers from chronic bronnchitis even when he has no family history of the same. “Black spots in the X-ray mean air is getting trapped in certain patches of the lung. While breathing in remains normal, the patient cannot breathe out completely. It’s because the bronchial tubes get inflamed,” Dr Vikas Maurya said.

The health risks

Apart from smokers, chronic bronchitis is bound to occur in people with long-term exposure to pollution, says Dr Vikas Maurya. Those on the streets are not just affected by dust but also by automobile exhaust which is a cocktail of highly toxic gases like Sulphur dioxide (SO2), Carbon Dioxide (CO2), Carbon monoxide (CO), Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), Ozone and particulate matter of less than 10 microgram per cubic metre.

Prolonged exposure to pollution coupled with the open design of auto-rickshaws makes its drivers more vulnerable than others. Ainul Hussain has been driving an auto for six years now. He hates being stuck in a traffic jam, “Roads get packed with vehicles during traffic and people do not turn off the engines while waiting. Heat and emissions from cars make it a gas chamber for us. Ask any autowallah, they will tell you how they dread landing up behind a DTC or cluster bus in a jam,” he said.

A study on ‘Health Risk of Auto Rickshaw Drivers around Silencer of Heavy Vehicles’ conducted in Kozhikode city revealed that an auto driver comes closer to the silence of heavy vehicles on an average of 15 minutes every day. When compared to Delhi, the average time spent near silencers of such vehciles would be at least 30 minutes, given the longer duration of traffic signals during peak time.

“The survey convinced us that an area around the silencer with radius of one meter is Critical Region of Vehicle Pollution (CRVP) and any vehicle coming around it is like falling into a toxic well,” the study stated.

Acute effects of exposure to exhaust fumes include irritation in eyes and nose, changes in lung functions, headache, fatigue, and nausea. Chronic exposure is associated with cough, sputum production and lung impairments. Severe cases also lead to organ failure, heart disease, cancer and can affect the brain as well.

Who are exposed the most
Studies have shown that long-term exposure to pollution causes irreparable damage to health
  • Aggravation of respiratory conditions like asthma, COPD
  • Dry cough, Itchy skin
  • Runny nose and chest congestion
  • Irritable, watery eyes
  • Increase in blood pressure
  • Increase in the risk of heart attack, stroke
  • Developing respiratory problems such as asthma, COPD
  • Pneumonia
  • Lung cancer
  • Kidney, liver damage
  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Depression
  • Wear N95/99 masks to work
  • If possible, avoid working early in the morning during winters
  • Try to avoid areas that are congested or have a high-vehicle density
  • Do not exert yourself too much while working outdoors
  • Make sure you do not work for longer periods
  • Do not smoke
  • Try to stay fit so that you do not develop other co-morbid conditions like heart diseases, diabetes

Shadow of death

Two blocks away from the house of Kumar in Karawal Nagar, lives the family of Veer Singh, who had died after a prolonged case of bronchital asthma. A day after Singh’s dead, his son Kanhaiya (31), sold off a diesel car which he used drive for a taxi company. “My father used to have breathlesess and developed hypertension. Towards the last six months he had to be kept 24 hours on oxygen. After his death neither me nor my brother are working in the transport sector. We sold off the auto and the car I had,” Kanhaiya says.

Veer was an auto driver for more than 30 years in Delhi. Kanhaiya says that before coming to Delhi he was a pehelwaan (wrestler) at his village in UP’s Aligarh. “He was fit and used to regularly practice in akhadas. But, years of riding an auto took a toll on him,” Kanhaiya adds.

Dr Raj Kumar, Professor at the National Centre of Respiratory Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (NCRAAI) was one of the first and probably the only one so far, to have done a study on autorickshaw drivers in Delhi. The study revealed that 77% of the auto-rickshaw drivers in the capital complained of cough, 80% of eye irritation, 54% of breathlessness, 25% of throat irritation and 16% of sneezing and common cold. Headaches and nausea were some other complaints as well.

Although the study was conducted way back in 1999 when pollution levels were lesser, the study is indicative of how bad the situation could be in the existing environmental conditons.

“At that time pollution level was just marginally higher than the prescribed norms and still I found that auto drivers were sufferring. Now we have seen times, when PM 2.5 levels are 17 times more than normal. Consider that with the fact that a human being breathes in 14-18 times every minute. You will get an idea how badly pollution must have affected the lungs of auto-rickshaw drivers,” Dr Raj Kumar told HT.

Looking for a passenger outside Barakhamba metro station, Jitender Kumar Gupta, a resident of Mohan Garden says he earns around Rs 15,000 every month excluding the money spent on maintenance of his auto-rickshaw. After the terrifying week-long smog that had engulfed the capital for almost a week, he spent Rs 40 to buy a washable cloth mask to cover his mouth.

“When I used to cough, I had begun to spit black sputum. Two days later, I bought this mask. I hope it is clearing at least some air that I breathe,” he said.


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First Published: Dec 03, 2016 16:33 IST