Delhi’s roads are hubs of life-threatening pollutants | Latest News Delhi - Hindustan Times
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Delhi’s roads are hubs of life-threatening pollutants

Hindustan Times | By, New Delhi
Dec 08, 2016 03:47 PM IST

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.

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.

Traffic policeman wears a pollution mask due to heavy smog and air pollution in New Delhi.(PTI Photo)
Traffic policeman wears a pollution mask due to heavy smog and air pollution in New Delhi.(PTI Photo)

“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.

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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.

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