Bad Air Has Left Mumbai Sick And Doctors Alarmed

Cases of respiratory ailments have spiked as Mumbai's AQI dips, possibly causing long-lasting impact on health.

Polluted Mumbai on the horizon. (Photo Courtesy: Flickr/<a href="">Emma Jespersen</a>)
Polluted Mumbai on the horizon. (Photo Courtesy: Flickr/Emma Jespersen)

Mumbai is grappling with a bout of respiratory ailments as the air quality of India's financial hub has been poor for about three months. 

The city has seen a spike in cases of cold, headache, throat infection, persistent dry cough and breathing difficulties. These, according to doctors, could have possible long-lasting impact on human health.

"The visits to the outpatient department for breathing difficulty issues and dry cough have doubled in the past couple of weeks," Dr Salil Bendre, head of pulmonology and chest medicine at Nanavati Max Super Specialty Hospital, told BQ Prime. "We are also seeing around 5% hospitalisations among asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD patients as they've been facing increased issues."

A haze of dust and smoke—more identified with India's northern cities during the winter—now hangs over Mumbai as construction and multiple infrastructure projects have added to industrial pollution. The changed wind patterns could also have possibly aided the drop in air quality by affecting the "natural cleansing mechanism of the city", Dr Gufran Beig, founder project director, SAFAR, the government's research based initiative on health advisories, wrote in the Indian Express. Whatever the cause, doctors are worried.

Individuals complaining about having coughs, sore throats, and headaches have risen in the last month, according to Dr Prashant Chhajed, senior consultant in pulmonology and chest medicine at Nanavati Max. The patients are taking longer to recover, the doctor said, as the cause is multifactorial. "There has been an increase in pollution, seasonal variation, or climate change, and an increase in viral respiratory tract infections."

Almost 25-30% patients in the ICU currently have been hospitalised due to acute respiratory ailments, Dr Kedar Toraskar, critical care and pulmonology consultant from Wockhardt Hospital in South Mumbai, told BQ Prime. "Especially, patients with COPD, asthma, and interstitial lung diseases are presenting with respiratory failure and are requiring ICU care in the form of non-invasive or invasive ventilation," he said.

"Post the Omicron wave, and in the last three months, Covid cases are almost negligible. However, there has been a surge in influenza A (H3N2) cases, followed by swine flu (H1N1), respiratory syncytial virus, and adenovirus infections, apart from community-acquired bacterial pneumonia. Also, dry cough that usually lasted for two to three days in the winter is now lasting for over a month, which is attributed to postviral bronchiolitis," Dr Toraskar said.

"People from extreme age groups—pediatric or children and the elderly which is 65 plus age group—are suffering more and are prone to complications ."

Pollution—A Slow Poison

Pollution is damaging health and wrecking havoc with lungs, said Dr Sanjeev Mehta, consultant in chest, allergy, and sleep medicine at Lilavati and Arogya Nidhi hospitals in Mumbai. "There is no coming back from the damage it is causing."

In the past couple of months, Mumbai's AQI has worsened and dipped even below Delhi's on some occasions, Dr Mehta said.

Dr Toraskar highlighted how the exponential construction and metro plans taking place since the last four to five years have been impacting Mumbai's air quality. Industries located within city limits and the season, too, have been adding to the pollution problem.

Some of the pollution-related health issues identified by Dr Mehta:

  • India has the unfortunate status of having a very high number of COPD cases and consequent deaths, which are also among the highest in the world.

  • Post-Covid, patients with asthma and COPD are showing increasing health disturbances. This seems to be correlated with an increase in activity and pollution.

  • Pollution like smoking affects the growing lung. Long-term exposure of growing children to smoke and pollution may result in weaker lungs. Also, pregnant women exposed to smoke and pollution could potentially birth babies with impacted lungs. Such impacted individuals are at a higher risk of developing COPD and lung-related health issues.

  • A study conducted by him showed poor lung function in what would otherwise be a young, healthy population that does not smoke or is not exposed to biomass fuel. "This makes us think that pollution could be playing a negative role in the health of such individuals."

With every passing generation, according to Dr Mehta, the health especially the lung capacity is worsening due to exposure to pollutants.

Long exposure to pollution would leave a long-lasting impact on the lung function, according to Dr Toraskar. "The pulmonary function progressively deteriorates with each infective or non-infective exacerbation."

Chronic exposure to pollution could lead to development of chronic bronchitis which can cause heart diseases and increase the risk of stroke and cancer, said Dr Chhajed of Nanavati Max.

Precaution And Prevention

Wear masks for prevention and get flu shots to protect yourself against influenza if eligible, advised to Dr Chhajed. Also, individuals with chronic lung conditions must continue to take their medications regularly, he said.

While Dr Mehta suggests avoiding smoking and reducing exposure to pollutants—smoke, dust and biomass fuel to protect lungs especially, the developing ones.

Air pollution menace should be taken up more actively by environmental activists and the governmental agencies, according to Dr Toraskar. Curbing construction activities and replacing polluting old trucks and transport vehicles needs to be undertaken by the government, he said.

Aiming for an all electric vehicles in the near future will also go a long way in improving our air quality index significantly.

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