New study on Delhi’s wastepickers, sweepers, security guards establishes link between air pollution & lung disease

Around 75-86 per cent respondents had abnormal pulmonary function, shows study

By DTE Staff
Published: Tuesday 04 July 2023
Women participants in every study group had lower lung function than men. Photo: iStock

Pollution has been known to damage the lungs and a new study done on outdoor workers in Delhi who have daily exposure to unclean air showed the extent of the hazard.

As many as 75 per cent wastepickers, 86 per cent safai karamcharis (municipal sweepers) and 86 per cent security guards studied in Delhi had abnormal pulmonary function, according to the report by Chintan, an environmental research and action group.

In contrast, only 45 per cent of the participants of the control group had abnormal lung function, the authors observed. 

Moreover, 17 per cent wastepickers, 27 per cent safai karamcharis and 10 per cent security guards were found to be suffering from severe lung illnesses, while no such case was reported among the controls, according to the findings of the study. “Women participants of all study groups had lower lung function than the males.”

This indicates a correlation between exposure to poor quality air and impaired pulmonary functions. 

The people studied are regularly exposed to dust, waste and particulate matter as well as toxic gases, the researchers noted. 

The researchers of Chintan, in consultation with Dr Randeep Guleria, former director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), and Dr Tejas Menon Suri from AIIMS, selected four hundred participants from 15 sites in Delhi. Of them, 100 were from each occupational group and 100 were part of the control group.

“The participants were surveyed on-site using a questionnaire, followed by a pulmonary function test,” the researchers wrote. 

Despite almost all the workers being exposed to polluted air, more than half of the wastepickers  and safai karmacharis and 30 per cent security guards were not aware of personal protection gears than they can use to reduce their exposure, accoriding to the report. 

Moreover, some of them reported burning wood or waste in the open during winter to keep warm. The smoke from such burning activity can be dangerous for the body. The researchers wrote:

Nearly half of the wastepickers, five per cent safai karamcharis and nine per cent security guards reported burning wood or coal to keep warm during winter. Waste burning was practiced by more than 30 per cent wastepickers.

The authors consulted health and air pollution experts as well as the participants of the study to propose a raft of recommendations. These included providing these workers with personal protective equipment and teaching how to use them; providing washing facility near work sites and warm kits during winters. 

They also suggested other methods to better manage pollution, limit exposure of the workers and bring about a systemic shift in the fight against pollution. 

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