Worried about air pollution? Experts explain how to stay safe
How to navigate air pollution without turning into Darth Vader
There’s a dark cloud looming above. The end of the year does bring a certain amount of ennui and existential dread, as we ponder over the months past, what we’ve done, and what we could and should have done. But the haze shrouding us right now isn’t (only) from our year-end crisis. It’s also air pollution.
This air-quality rollercoaster we’ve been unwittingly riding is no joke. We’ve got more particulate matter than a messy breakup and nitrogen dioxide playing the role of bin bulaya mehmaan, who doesn’t know when to leave a party.
With the AQI fluctuating between ‘poor’ and ‘very poor’ in major metros, namely Delhi and Mumbai, it was only a matter of time before the phones started ringing at doctors’ clinics.
Talk a walk outside and you feel like a fish out of water, gasping for air. Maybe we go back in our evolutionary line to adapt with some gills – though the state of our water bodies isn’t much better.
With the surge in air pollution resembling a bad sci-fi movie, it’s time we talk about protecting ourselves. We enlisted the help of Dr Rakesh Rajpurohit, consultant pulmonologist, SRV Hospitals, Mumbai, Dr Girish Johri, a Delhi-based ENT, and Dr Smita Nagaonkar, consultant and section co-ordinator, ENT, Sir HN Reliance Foundation Hospital, Mumbai, to help us navigate this pollution palooza and arm us with tips that will help us breathe easier.
Rajpurohit and Nagaonkar have observed a marked increase in patients coming in with respiratory symptoms like sneezing, coughing and wheezing. “The pediatric age group is also affected, in addition to adults,” says Nagaonkar.
Rajpurohit notes that air pollution, particularly high levels of particulate matter, increases the risk of respiratory infections, asthma exacerbation, chronic bronchitis and other respiratory diseases. “Fine particles can penetrate deep into the lungs, causing inflammation, aggravating existing respiratory conditions, and impairing lung function. Prolonged exposure may also contribute to the development of more serious conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and cardiovascular diseases.”
The expert guide to protecting yourself from air pollution
Keep things indoors
Both experts recommend limiting outdoor activities as much as you can on high-pollution days. “If air quality is poor, try to reduce outdoor activities, especially strenuous exercises, jogging or cycling in parks, to minimise exposure,” says Rajpurohit.
You can’t avoid leaving the house at all times, so if you do happen to step out, bring out our trusty friend – the face mask. Definitely not the same ones you’ve had lying in the house post-COVID.
Nagaonkar says that the regular use of anti-pollution and N-95 masks can make a big difference, especially if you already have asthma. “People who use regular masks are more protected against micro-particulate matter, as it has higher filtration efficacy.”
Johri says that the medical masks you may have used during the pandemic will not suffice in this situation. “Look for masks that specifically focus on protecting you from air pollution.”
Ventilate your homes
It may be challenging, but find a time of day when the air quality has improved and open all your windows to let that fresh air in. Nagaonkar says it’s important to keep your house and care smoke-free – we’re inhaling enough as it is.
Rajpurohit adds that it’s equally important to change AC filters periodically, use cooking vents, and keep your rugs and carpets clean to prevent fungal mould growth. Johri says that during this time, you need to change your bedding and curtains regularly, too, because you don’t know what the material is soaking up.
Sweat through it
Your morning walk with your neighbourhood friends may not be the best idea right now, but don’t give up on exercise. All our experts, Johri, Nagaonkar and Rajpurohit encourage readers and patients to maintain an exercise regime indoors to improve lung function and overall health (we found some workouts you can try).
Dadi’s remedy of bhapara (steam inhalation) and garam paani gargle can help as a preventative measure, as they have a soothing effect on upper airway infections, says Rajpurohit. “Do consider timely adult vaccination in patients of asthma and COPD as a preventative approach against rising respiratory infections.”
The experts also agree on the need to keep track of your vitamin C, B12 and D levels so that your body and immunity are fit enough to fight off any infection caused by air pollution.
You can take supplements, but it’s best to do so after consulting an expert and getting your bloodwork done. This way, the doctor can recommend the right dosage.
Clear the air
Rajpurohit says that when used correctly, air purifiers can help clean up indoor air quality. “Air purifiers with HEPA filters effectively capture and remove airborne particles, including pollutants, allergens and dust. Activated carbon filters in some purifiers also help eliminate odours and certain gases.”
Take this as an excuse to also stock up on more indoor plants. He suggests plants like spider plants, peace lilies, snake plants and pothos, which are known for their air-purifying properties. “They can absorb pollutants and release oxygen, creating a healthier indoor environment.” Nagaonkar adds tulsi and chrysanthemum to the list, but if you’re a pet parent, ensure the plants you pick up are pet-safe.