Deadly nursery: Children queue in hospitals with respiratory problems as Delhi air turns toxic

PM10, PM2.5 levels cross 5 times the normal levels in national capital 

By Vivek Mishra
Published: Friday 03 November 2023
Children using nebulisers in a government hospital in Delhi. Photo: Vivek Mishra / CSE__

Delhi’s air quality plummeted on November 2, 2023, prompting emergency actions to control pollution levels. The dangerous levels of pollutants is already showing effects, with outpatient (OPD) and emergency departments in hospitals witnessing queues of children under the age of five and the scene at children’s hospitals and wards is dystopian. 

During ground visits, Down To Earth (DTE) met 3-year-old Vishal Prajapati lying completely lethargic and helpless on an emergency bed in Chacha Nehru Bal Chikitsalaya (CNBC), the only government children’s hospital in east Delhi’s Geeta Colony.

Read more: Deadly nursery: Why children bear brunt of toxic air in Delhi

Prajapati is a resident of Sangam Vihar, Loni and has been admitted at CNBC for a week, his mother told DTE. “He has a fever, cough, and pneumonia. He begins to suffer whenever air pollution levels rise. We had brought him to the hospital last year as well,” she said. 

Three other children near the same bed were also using nebulisers for inhaling steam in the ward. Most affected children became ill within a day or two of Delhi’s dangerous increase in pollution and had an upper lung infection, showing symptoms like cough, fever and mucus buildup. Some children are also suffering from lower lung infections.  

The majority of the children who came for treatment are from poor families and many live in slum colonies that face a severe problem of flying dust.

A family from Khoda Colony in Mayur Vihar Phase III was found helping their child take steam near the emergency bed. The child, Vansh Kumar, was a little over a year old and was brought to the hospital a day ago, said his uncle Sharad Kumar. “Vansh is being given a nebuliser for inhaling steam and medicines,” he said.  

Read more: In polluted Delhi, children have no place to hide from diseases

Dipanshu Thakur was waiting for his turn in the OPD of the Respiratory Diseases Department of CNBC Hospital. His child, 10-month-old Yuven Thakur, suddenly developed a cough and cold on November 2, 2023, he told DTE. Thakur said his child had not faced any respiratory issues until now. 

Thakur works at the multinational company KPMG and lives in the Old Govindpuri Extension. He blamed the infant’s breathing problems on the severe air pollution levels. “The doctors have diagnosed my son with an upper lung infection,” he said. 

According to Dr Medha Mittal, an expert who examines endocrine cases in children in the OPD, air pollution is harming children’s health. “Delhi’s existing air pollution is leading to a rapid increase in respiratory cases,” Mittal said. 

Naushad Ali from Delhi 93, near Mandoli, was also at CNBC with his 10-month-old daughter Maryam. “The doctor advised nebulising her frequently, even at home. He even advised making her wear masks and added the weather and pollution were responsible for her cough and breathing problems,” he said. 

The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) also states that prolonged exposure to air pollution can cause children to suffer from respiratory diseases.

Cases related to asthma and pneumonia are also increasing rapidly in OPD and emergency departments of Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital (RML). Doctors told DTE that this number may increase further in the coming days. 

Dr Ambavasan A, senior resident in the emergency ward, said with the increase in pollution, the number of people getting treatment here is increasing. “Most referral cases came to RML and the number of patients starts increasing here as the night falls,” he said.

Read more: Delhi, your deadly skies are speeding up a silent pandemic — AMR

Pneumonia is almost certain to occur in children who have heart disease at high air pollution levels, he said, increasing the risk during winter, also called the pollution season.

Particulate matter pollution five times more 

Many pollutants are present in the air, according to the CPCB, such as carbon monoxide (CO), nitric oxide (NO), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), ozone (OTH), etc. However, the most dangerous is ultrafine particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5), which are suspended in the air. Their size is less than 2.5 microns,  which cannot be seen with the naked eye.

PM 2.5 is produced by all types of combustion, including motor vehicles, power plants, and industrial activities. It is also emitted in large quantities by some firecrackers. 

According to many research papers, PM 2.5 is considered to be the most dangerous for health and can deeply affect the respiratory system. Its side effects on health can also be seen or felt in immediate form, for example, discomfort in eyes, nose, throat and lungs, a buildup of phlegm, runny nose and shortness of breath. 

Apart from this, people exposed to it for a long period may have to face serious health problems related to the respiratory system. It can also cause asthma and heart diseases. 

Read more: Delhi, controlling air pollution is in your own hands

In Delhi-National Capital Region, PM 10 (fine particulate matter with size less than 10 microns) and PM 2.5 have reached emergency levels. The Central Control Room for Air Quality Management by the Central Pollution Control Board monitors this particulate pollution in Delhi-NCR.  

According to CPCB, the normal level of PM 2.5 is 100 micrograms per cubic metre and the normal level of PM 2.5 is 60 micrograms per cubic metre. 

At the time of filing this report on November 3, 2023, PM 2.5 reached 301 microgrammes per cubic metre, five times more than its normal level and PM 10 levels has reached 500 microgrammes per cubic metre, also five times more than its normal standard. Delhi’s air quality index has also gone from very poor to severe level and air quality remains at critical level in many areas of Delhi. 

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