Asthma is silently strangulating humankind, and controlling air pollution could be the most effective way of combating it
The wheeze squeeze
VEHICLES spewing forth noxious fumes are the bane of even the fittest amongst us, but for asthmatics, they are an open invitation to disaster. Recent reports from across the globe suggest that while cases of asthma are on the rise, individuals suffering from the ailment are keeping a watchful eye on air pollution, one of the principal factors which tend to aggravate the troublesome symptoms.
According to estimates, one in seven children is afflicted by asthma in the UK. In London, parents of asthmatics reacted angrily recently when a High Court ruling turned down their plea to ban traffic from a busy road during periods of high air pollution. In Australia and New Zealand, 15-20 per cent of school children are asthmatic. In the US, the Atlanta-based Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that asthma cases and deaths have soared at least 40 per cent since 1982; today, five per cent of the total population, or over 10 million people, are suffering from it.
All in the air?
The symptoms of asthma — a chronic disease — are shortness of breath, wheezing and coughing. The disease results from the muscular contraction of the bronchi and swelling of the bronchial mucosa and is triggered off by substances such as pollen, cigarette smoke or smog. The best defence is an inhaler that contains drugs to relieve the narrowing of the bronchi and inhibit the mucous glands. However, occasionally an asthma sufferer may experience a fatal drug-resistant attack. The high incidence of air pollution engenders an increased severity of the disease. “Though it is very doubtful that normal people get asthma because of air pollution, it can be said with certainty that the severity of asthma is increasing due to air pollution,” says S K Chabra, senior lecturer and chest specialist at the Delhi-based Patel Chest Institute.
A similar view is taken by S N Gaur, reader and head of the department of clinical research at the same institute, who says: “We are seeing more chronic and complicated cases such as patients with lung ruptures, fibrosis and pneumonias because of pollution, especially traffic pollution. Those asthmatics who could have had a normal life cannot have one, because some part of their lung has suffered irreversible damage owing to repeated attacks and local tissue damage by pollution which is not reversible to the extent that it was before.” Air pollution is often regarded as a hidden enemy because it may take years before the damage done to the lungs becomes apparent. But the dangers are all-pervasive. “Air pollution is an increase in the quantity of chemicals and gases in the air beyond permitted levels.
The common harmful substances are ozone, sulphur dioxide, acid sulphates, oxides of nitrogen, suspended particulate matter and lead,” says Chabra. Of these, the major gaseous pollutants are sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and ozone, generated by thermal power stations, by the burning of natural gas in homes and industries and by motor vehicles. Tests conducted on asthmatic volunteers in the UK show that breathing in any of these air pollutants causes a rapid narrowing of the lung airways and brings on asthmatic attacks. It is small wonder then that medical costs of treating asthma are on the upswing. In UK, health costs amount to over US $1.55 billion a year, according to the national asthma campaign.
Medical circles are concerned that permissible worldwide standards for major pollutants may be too high. It is a paradoxical situation. Animal studies do show that air pollution is responsible for asthma. But despite bringing pollutants down below permissible levels, asthma is still increasing in the West. Chabra points out that this raises the question whether the West has been too liberal with permissible levels of gases and chemicals.
This contention is borne out by several studies. In the case of ozone, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) air quality guidelines indicate that effects on human health, such as pulmonary function changes and increased respiratory symptoms, can be expected in exercising patients at one- October 15, 1996 Down To Earth 22 SPECIAL REPORT The wheeze squeeze Asthma is silently strangulating humankind, and controlling air pollution could be the most effective way of combating it S K Chabra examines an X-ray in his laboratory; according to him, air pollution is responsible for increasing asthma severity AMIT SHANKER / CSE hour average concentrations exceeding 160-200 micrograms per cubic metre (mpcm); the current US environmental protection agency standard is 240 mpcm. Similar questions of appropriate standards hover over particulate pollution. A WHO panel drawn from 11 countries says there “may be large” health implications from particles known as PM10s (having a diameter of less than 10 micrometres).
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