Dr Jayalakshmi T K, Consultant, Pulmonology, Apollo Hospitals, Navi Mumbai
Air pollution has always been one of the biggest concerns in India as it poses a major health risk and has caused a lot of premature mortality cases.
The air quality is an indispensable aspect to consider when monitoring respiratory health. Particulate Matter (PM) is the most dominant pollutant in India which is mainly caused due to vehicles, residences, energy emissions, industrial emissions and dust. According to WHO, around 91% of the world lives in areas wherein the air quality is inferior to the desirable levels.
The rapid spread of the Covid-19 virus that began in March in India resulted in the government declaring a nationwide lockdown to control the spread of the virus which put a pause on a lot of industrial as well as individual-level activities. This has limited the emission levels in India significantly, thereby impacting air quality and overall respiratory health.
According to a study by Elsevier, an overall decrease of 43%, 31%, 10%, and 18% in PM2.5, PM10, CO, and NO2 were observed during lockdown period, while there were 17% increase in O3 and a negligible change in SO2. This drop-in pollution level is very helpful in preventing a lot of pollution-related respiratory health issues in many individuals, and in many cases deaths due to air pollution exposure.
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Respiratory Health During Covid-19
With regards to the pandemic, better air quality has also led to reducing the susceptibility to Covid-19 due to breathing issues among many individuals. Higher levels of pollutants are known to impact respiratory and cardiovascular health of individuals which can affect the body’s natural response against airborne diseases like Covid, and can result in extreme health complications. Better air quality is one of the ways that can help the fight against this pandemic.
Places where the air quality has not improved much have a higher risk of individuals suffering from complications and being exposed to the virus. The lockdown has slightly improved the respiratory health of India due to reduced vehicular traffic, partial industry and construction activity shutdowns, as well as fossil fuel combustions. These activities have directly impacted the rise in illnesses like cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, infections, asthma, and bronchitis over the last two decades.
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While there is a reduction in emissions during the lockdown which has had a positive environmental and physical impact, it is a temporary situation. As things open up and we go back to normal, the risk of respiratory and cardiac diseases due to air pollution will also go back to normal. With the restrictions already being lifted, there is a possibility that this momentum might get disrupted as usual activities resume.
However, the world is still grappling with the effects of the deadly virus and higher emissions will just bring a setback to all the progress we are making in recovery as well as in reducing the number of cases. In such a scenario, an effective and balanced environmental and healthcare plan needs to be put in place to ensure that these air quality levels are maintained as we slowly recover from Covid-19.