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

Pollutants lower immunity levels and increase inflammation in children, say experts

By Nandita Banerji
Published: Friday 03 November 2023
Photo: Midhun Vijayan / CSE

The air pollution levels in the national capital, Delhi, hit emergency levels on November 2, 2023, with the air quality index in several locations reaching close to 500 — the highest the measurement will go. While emergency measures have kicked in, which include shutting down schools for two days, November 3 and November 4, worries about the impact of such high pollution levels on vulnerable populations such as children remain. 

Fine and ultrafine particulate matters 10 and 2.5 are the major pollutants in the capital, according to the Central Pollution Control Board. On November 3, 1 pm, PM10 levels were at 507.1 microgrammes per cubic metre while PM2.5 levels were at 311.8 microgrammes per cubic metre. 

The high amount of PM2.5 particles, whose size is less than or equal to 2.5 microns, is worse for health, according to Shambhavi Shukla, programme manager for clean air and sustainable mobility at Delhi-based think tank Centre for Science and Environment. “While PM10 particles, whose size is less than or equal to 10 microns, stay in the lungs, but PM2.5 particles travel with the bloodstream to reach other parts of the body and organs,” she said. 

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

Children breathe faster than adults, according to Regional Director of United Nations Child Rights body UNICEF in South Asia Jean Gough’s op-ed written in 2019. While a typical adult takes between 12 and 18 breaths a minute, a three-year-old takes in about 20-30 breaths at the same time. For newborns, it can go up to 30-40 breaths a minute. 

Growing children tend to inhale more air, said Shukla. “If one inhales more air, they are also taking in more pollutants. These end up affecting the organs of children as they are at a developing age,” she said. 

Issues like irritation to the nose, throat, eyes or skin, burning eyes, headache, dizziness, nausea, coughing and choked breathing are reported due to exposure to air pollution, said Monika Arora, vice president (Research and Health Promotion) at the Public Health Foundation of India. 

“Young children and older adults have weak immune systems and are most vulnerable to pollution. However, long-term exposure can lead to respiratory infections, asthma, lowering learning abilities and even physical growth,” she said. 

“The pollutants lead to inflammation and lower immunity to infections in children. It is also associated with increased reporting of respiratory symptoms among non-asthmatic children as well as increased respiratory hospital admission and emergency department visits for children,” she said. “New literature (research) has also shown other effects of long-term exposure to air pollution, like an increase in blood pressure, risk of cardiovascular diseases and even diabetes,” Arora added.

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

Shukla said the finer particles, PM2.5, are at an emergency level in Delhi. “Its main sources include combustion sources such as vehicles, industries and power plants. Among the local sources of pollution, vehicles contribute half. Exposure needs to be immediately reduced for all age groups, especially children,” she said. 

For children, the effect of PM2.5 on organs is especially damaging, as they are at a growing stage. “The pollutants can effect people who are pregnant as well. There have been studies showing pollutants reach the placenta and can affect the womb,” she said. 

The Delhi government has banned non-essential construction activities in light of the air quality emergency. BS-3 petrol and BS-4 diesel cars will not be permitted to ply in Delhi, Gurugram, Faridabad, Ghaziabad and Gautam Budh Nagar. 

The situation on the ground may be worse, Shukla said. The ambient air quality is measured for adults, not children, who face a different, more concentrated exposure to pollutants. 

Temporarily closing down schools can provide a short relief by reducing the massive exposure to air pollution in the mornings, said Arora. “Personal measures like air purifiers provide temporary relief when people remain indoors and N95 masks are needed for outdoor protection,” she said. “Overall pollution levels must be reduced from sources like vehicular emissions, farm stubble burning and even open fires in winters by the poor in cities to protect from cold.”

Research shows exposure to pollutants during pregnancy can lead to premature birth, intrauterine growth retardation, stillbirths, low birth weights, abnormal head circumference and more, Arora highlighted.

Air pollution also impacts neurodevelopment and cognitive ability and can trigger asthma and childhood cancer, according to the World Health Organization. 

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

Youngest children are also in danger as the blood-brain barrier is not fully formed, Gogh had further said. Air pollutants can easily cross from the lungs to the bloodstream and from the bloodstream to the brain. There, they actually cause brain cells to inflame. This damages the brain cells and affects the child’s cognitive and intellectual development. 

“Today’s generation of children will be affected for life and as adults, we have a pressing and serious duty to reverse this horrendous trend,” Gogh wrote. 

A 2018 study by the WHO looking into air pollution effects on children found that around 93 per cent of those under the age of 15 years (1.8 billion children) breathe air that is so polluted it puts their health and development at serious risk.

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