Unmasking the Health Effects of Air Pollution in Delhi: Tips for Protection and Prevention

By Dr. Sandeep Nayar in Centre For Chest & Respiratory Diseases

Nov 27 , 2023 | 7 min read

Delhi, the capital city of India, is known for its rich history, diverse culture, and bustling energy. However, it is also infamous for its alarming levels of air pollution. The air quality in Delhi often reaches hazardous levels, posing serious health risks to its residents.

In this blog, we will unmask the health effects of air pollution in Delhi and provide practical tips for protection and prevention.


Understanding Air Pollution in Delhi

What Causes Air Pollution in Delhi?

Delhi's air pollution is a complex issue, with multiple sources contributing to its hazardous levels. The major culprits include:

  • Vehicular Emissions: The rapid increase in the number of vehicles on Delhi's roads is a significant contributor to air pollution. Exhaust emissions release pollutants such as particulate matter.

  • Industrial Pollution: The release of pollutants from factories, including heavy metals and chemicals, adds to the overall pollution burden.

  • Construction Dust: The booming construction activities in the city generate substantial amounts of dust. Construction dust, rich in particulate matter, becomes airborne and significantly contributes to the elevated levels of PM10 in the air.

  • Biomass Burning: During winter, the practice of burning agricultural residues in neighbouring states adds to Delhi's pollution. The resulting smoke releases pollutants like PM2.5 and PM10 into the atmosphere.

  • Waste Burning: Improper disposal of waste, including plastic and other non-biodegradable materials, contributes to air pollution. Burning of waste releases harmful substances, including dioxins and furans, into the air.

Air Quality Index (AQI) in Delhi

The Air Quality Index (AQI) is a standardised tool used to communicate the level of air pollution to the public. It takes into account various pollutants, including PM2.5, PM10, nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), carbon monoxide (CO), and ozone (O3). The final index is categorised into different levels, ranging from "Good" to "Hazardous".

Common Air Pollutants

  • Particulate Matter (PM2.5 And PM10): PM2.5 and PM10 refer to particles with diameters of 2.5 micrometres and 10 micrometres, respectively. These fine particles can cause respiratory issues and cardiovascular problems.

  • Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2): NO2 is a byproduct of combustion processes, primarily from vehicles and industrial activities. Prolonged exposure can lead to respiratory problems and contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone.

  • Sulfur Dioxide (SO2): SO2 is released from burning fossil fuels containing sulfur, such as coal and oil. It can irritate the respiratory system and contribute to the formation of acid rain.

  • Ozone (O3): While ozone in the upper atmosphere is useful, ground-level ozone is harmful. It can cause respiratory issues, especially during hot and sunny days.


Health Effects of Air Pollution

In a city like Delhi, where air quality often reaches hazardous levels, understanding the health effects is crucial for individuals to take preventive measures and for policymakers to implement effective strategies.

Short-Term Health Effects

  • Respiratory Problems: Immediate exposure to polluted air can lead to respiratory issues such as coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath. Fine particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10) and other pollutants irritate the respiratory system, causing inflammation in the airways.

  • Headaches And Fatigue: Air pollution has been linked to headaches and fatigue. The presence of pollutants like nitrogen dioxide (NO2) can affect the central nervous system.

  • Exacerbation Of Pre-Existing Conditions: Individuals with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may experience worsened symptoms during periods of high air pollution. Pollutants can trigger or exacerbate existing respiratory problems.

  • Eye Irritation: Airborne pollutants can also cause irritation to the eyes. This is particularly true in cases where pollutants like sulfur dioxide (SO2) are present, leading to eye discomfort and watering.

Long-Term Health Effects

  • Cardiovascular Diseases: Prolonged exposure to air pollution is strongly linked to cardiovascular diseases. Fine particulate matter and other pollutants can enter the bloodstream, causing inflammation and contributing to the development of conditions such as heart attacks, strokes, and high blood pressure.

  • Chronic Respiratory Diseases: Long-term exposure to pollutants can result in the development of chronic respiratory diseases. Conditions such as chronic bronchitis and emphysema may manifest after years of breathing in polluted air, particularly for individuals working in occupations with high exposure levels.

  • Cancer: Benzene and formaldehyde are classified as carcinogens. Prolonged exposure increases the risk of developing lung cancer and other respiratory cancers. This is a serious concern, considering Delhi's persistently high levels of pollution.

  • Reduced Lung Function: Children exposed to air pollution over an extended period may experience reduced lung function, which can persist into adulthood. This poses a significant risk for the development of respiratory issues later in life.

Vulnerable Populations

Certain groups are more susceptible to the health effects of air pollution:

  • Children: Developing organs in children makes them more vulnerable to the harmful effects of pollutants. Children exposed to air pollution may experience impaired lung development and are at an increased risk of respiratory infections.

  • Elderly: Older individuals, especially those with pre-existing health conditions, are more prone to the adverse effects of air pollution. Cardiovascular and respiratory systems may be compromised, exacerbating existing health issues.

  • Individuals With Pre-Existing Health Conditions: Those with pre-existing respiratory or cardiovascular conditions, such as asthma, COPD, or heart disease, face heightened risks. Air pollution can worsen their symptoms and lead to more severe health complications.

  • Pregnant Women: Pregnant women exposed to air pollution may face preterm birth, low birth weight, and developmental issues in the unborn child. The pollutants can also impact the health of the mother.


Protection and Prevention Tips

Air pollution in Delhi is a pervasive issue that demands proactive measures to safeguard the health of its residents. Implementing protection and prevention strategies on an individual and community level is crucial to mitigate the impact of polluted air. Here are comprehensive tips to help you navigate through the challenges of Delhi's air quality.

Monitoring Air Quality

  • Use Air Quality Monitoring Apps: Stay informed about daily air quality levels by using reliable apps such as "AirVisual," "SAFAR-Air," and "Plume Air Report." These apps provide real-time air quality data, forecasts, and health recommendations based on the Air Quality Index (AQI).

  • Check Government Websites: Websites like the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and the System of Air Quality Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR) regularly update air quality information. These platforms offer comprehensive data and insights into the current pollution levels in different areas of Delhi.

Indoor Air Quality Improvement

  • Use Air Purifiers: Invest in high-quality air purifiers for indoor spaces. HEPA filters effectively capture fine particulate matter, ensuring cleaner air within homes and workplaces.

  • Ventilation: Ensure proper ventilation in indoor spaces to reduce the concentration of indoor pollutants. Opening windows and doors during times of lower outdoor pollution levels allows fresh air to circulate.

  • Indoor Plants: Incorporate indoor plants known for their air-purifying qualities, such as snake plants, peace lilies, and spider plants. These plants can help remove certain pollutants and improve indoor air quality.

  • Limit Indoor Pollutant Sources: Minimise the use of household products that emit pollutants, such as paints, cleaning agents, and air fresheners. Opt for natural alternatives and proper disposal of household waste.

Outdoor Protection

  • Wear N95 Masks: When outdoor air quality is poor, especially during high pollution seasons, wearing N95 masks can significantly reduce exposure to harmful particles. These masks are designed to filter out fine particulate matter effectively.

  • Avoid Peak Pollution Hours: Plan outdoor activities during times when pollution levels are lower. Pollution tends to be at its peak during early mornings and late evenings, so scheduling activities during other parts of the day can minimise exposure.

  • Choose Less Polluted Routes: Plan travel routes that avoid heavily congested and polluted areas. Opt for roads with less traffic to reduce exposure to vehicular emissions.

  • Use Pollution Index Apps: Some apps provide pollution levels specific to different areas within the city. Utilise these apps to choose less polluted areas for outdoor activities.

Lifestyle Changes

  • Use Public Transport: Opt for public transportation, carpooling, or ridesharing services to reduce the number of vehicles on the road. This helps decrease overall vehicular emissions.

  • Promote Sustainable Transportation: Consider using bicycles or walking for short distances. Promote the use of electric vehicles, which contribute less to air pollution compared to traditional combustion engine vehicles.

  • Reduce Energy Consumption: Conserve energy to minimise the reliance on fossil fuels. Use energy-efficient appliances, turn off lights and electronic devices when not in use, and support renewable energy sources.

Government Initiatives and Regulations

  • Odd-Even Rule: The Delhi government has implemented the odd-even rule, restricting the use of private vehicles based on their registration numbers. This initiative aims to reduce vehicular emissions and improve air quality during specific periods.

  • Construction Guidelines: The government has laid down guidelines for construction activities to minimise dust emissions. Adherence to these guidelines helps control the release of particulate matter into the air.

  • Banning Waste Burning: The burning of waste has been banned in Delhi, with strict penalties for violators. This regulation is crucial in reducing the release of harmful pollutants from open burning.

  • Promoting Green Initiatives: The government is actively promoting green initiatives, such as tree plantation drives and the creation of green spaces. Increasing green cover helps absorb pollutants and enhances overall air quality.

  • Stringent Industrial Regulations: The government has implemented stringent regulations for industries to control emissions. Regular checks and strict enforcement contribute to a reduction in industrial pollution.

Protecting oneself from air pollution in Delhi requires a combination of individual actions and government-led initiatives. By staying informed, making lifestyle changes, and supporting regulations and initiatives aimed at reducing pollution, residents can contribute to creating a healthier and more sustainable environment in the city.