It doesn’t get bigger than this, in size, scale and rigour — scientists from one of India’s top cancer institutes tracked 11,000 schoolchildren in Delhi for three years. They were drawn from 36 schools, each within 3 km of a pollution-tracking station.
This unprecedented study, by the Kolkata-based Chittaranjan National Cancer Institute (CNCI), found that key indicators of respiratory health, lung function to palpitation, vision to blood pressure, children in Delhi, between four and 17 years of age, were worse off than their counterparts elsewhere — the figures were twice to four times as bad.
The conclusion was chilling: “It is… unlikely that the deficits in lung function at the age of 17 years that has been found in a large number of schoolchildren of Delhi will be reversed as they complete the transition into adulthood.”
VIDEO: How Delhi’s poisonous air is damaging its children for life
In other words, just under half of the children studied — there are 44 lakh schoolchildren in the capital — are growing up into adults with irreversible lung damage.
And yet no one woke up.
An investigation by The Indian Express has found that the study gathered dust for two years since it was submitted to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), which ironically had commissioned it. The study was handed over in 2010, the very year RSPM (the killer dust in the air, respirable suspended particulate matter) was zooming to record levels.
Even the schools that were surveyed or parents of the children studied weren’t told about the findings because no one passed on the results. Or the recommendations which included radical steps such as moving schools off arterial roads.
For the scientists who did that study, nothing could have been more frustrating.
Starting 2002, they visited school after school in Delhi, often taking the Rajdhani Express all the way back to their institute in Kolkata with blood samples for testing. Its startling findings:
♦ In lung tests conducted on 5,718 students, 43.5% suffered from “poor or restrictive lungs”.
♦ About 15% of the children surveyed complained of frequent eye irritation, 27.4% of frequent headache, 11.2% of nausea, 7.2% of palpitation and 12.9% of fatigue.
♦ Delhi’s numbers were far higher than that among the ‘control group’ of 4,536 students selected from 17 schools spread across the “much less polluted” rural areas of Uttaranchal and West Bengal.
Kept in the dark about these facts, the schools surveyed in Delhi now want the government to “formulate an appropriate policy” to save their students. Even representatives from schools that were not part of that survey say they are now “extremely concerned” about how air pollution is affecting the health of their students.
‘Nobody from govt contacted us’
Dr Manas Ranjan Ray, the principal co-investigator of the study, said that the survey of schoolchildren was one of the two studies they had conducted in that period across different groups in Delhi — the other was on 6,000 adults that found 33.2% prevalence of symptoms indicating respiratory ailments.
While there have been a number of studies on the impact of air pollution on adults in Delhi —- as this newspaper reported on Tuesday —- the one on schoolchildren was the first of this magnitude that focused solely on this segment.
“We gave specific recommendations on when children should go out and play, in what periods schools should conduct outdoor activities, what medical checks students should be subjected to and where schools should be constructed to avoid vehicular air pollution. Absolutely nothing was followed up on. Nobody from the government ever contacted us,” Dr Ray told The Indian Express.
“We were never invited to any meetings related to policy reforms after we submitted the final report,” added Dr Ray.
The CNCI is a regional cancer institute governed jointly by the Union Health Ministry and West Bengal’s Department of Health. Dr Ray retired from the institute last year as assistant director in charge of research and head of its experimental hematology and neuroendocrinology wing.
“We made some practical and pointed recommendations, short and long term, after critically evaluating our findings vis-a-vis international studies. We hoped that even partial implementation of these proposals would improve the situation. Unfortunately, we are in complete darkness about the fate of these recommendations as nobody from the CPCB felt it necessary to contact us in the matter,” said Dr Ray.
He added that the report “came in the public domain after two years of submission to CPCB”.
“We heard that the report was sent to Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) and elsewhere for peer review. Usually, such reviews are done by the scientists who have done similar work and are recognised as authorities in the field based on their publications. The CPCB ultimately found some experts who took their own time. After a year or two, the experts made the comment that it was a good study. It was only then that the authority was convinced that the study was indeed not so bad, and decided to make it public without any editing,” Dr Ray said.
When contacted, CPCB member secretary, A B Akolkar, confirmed that the “study was commissioned and published by CPCB”. “After field work, publication takes natural time. CPCB has brought out several reports in this period,” he said.
Said Dr B Sengupta, who was the CPCB chairperson from 1998-2008 when the study was commissioned and conducted: “The government took the decision to get the study vetted by ICMR under the Ministry of Health before publishing it. It was due to this that the publication was delayed. But we always anticipated this; that pollutants have such an impact on health was always expected.”
Schools surveyed have no clue
The CPCB may have known it all along but officials from Ground Zero —- the 36 schools that participated in this survey —- said they still have no clue about what the scientists found 10 years ago.
S K Dahiya, principal, Lakshmi Public School, which had the highest number of children (971) participating in the survey, said he “was not with the school at that time”. “But I am sure that the school has not been made aware of any such findings,” he added.
Ajit Kumar, a member of the school’s Parent-Teacher Association, said, “This has never been raised in the school meetings. I don’t think school authorities or parents are aware of these findings.”
The school is located at one of Delhi’s prominent choke points —- the Vikas Marg intersection opposite Karkardooma court —- with work on a new Metro line adding to the pollution.
Of the 36 schools, the CNCI team found that at least six others were on main arterial roads: Kendriya Vidyalaya, East Arjun Nagar; Cambridge School, Srinivaspuri; Guru Harkrishan Public School, Karol Bagh; Bal Bharti Public School, Karol Bagh; DAV Model School, Yusuf Sarai; and DAV School, Pusa Road.
According to Kamalpreet Kaur, principal, Guru Harkrishan Public School, Karol Bagh, from where 335 students participated in the survey: “I joined the school in 2013, since then there has been no intimation from any authority but I will be following up on this. Air pollution is a big problem for students and teachers, we have so many asthmatic students who take leaves in winter months, I think it is time the government formulate an appropriate policy on this.”
L V Sehgal, principal, Bal Bharti Public School, Karol Bagh, from where 449 students participated in the study, confirmed that the findings were not “shared with us”.
A senior teacher from the school, who did not wish to be identified, said, “We had been one of the earliest schools to accept the proposal of the study. I remember our teachers helped two scientists who came here get consent letters from parents. We were in touch with the scientists till 2008-09, but after that we do not know when the report came out.”
A staff member from Kendriya Vidyalaya, East Arjun Nagar, from where 730 students participated in the study, said that the principal at the time had moved on. But he added, “The scientists spent almost a month here collecting samples, and interacting with students and parents in around 2005-06. But the results never came to the principal’s office.”
Now, even those who were not part of the survey are worried. Ameeta Wattal, principal, Springdales School, Pusa Road, said they set up an air pollution monitoring station at the school four years ago to “inculcate an awareness among children”.
Some of Delhi’s leading schools that were not part of the CNCI study say their students are suffering too:
“Our school is located in front of an intersection where there has always been very high traffic concentration. It is a problem we cannot ignore so we installed an air monitoring station at our school about four years ago. Children are encouraged to analyse trends, and check air quality, and we have been trying to inculcate an awareness among them about air pollution.”
— Ameeta Wattal, Principal, Springdales School, Pusa Road
.“We are very concerned about air pollution in Delhi. But there’s only so much that the students can do. Pollution in Delhi is mainly caused by vehicles and generators that use diesel. That is not something that students have control over, but we educate them and encourage them to tell their parents to take precautions.”
— D R Saini, Principal, DPS, R K Puram.
A year later, another warning
It’s not just the CNCI study that has red-flagged this danger: in 2013, a year after their report was published, the World Allergy Organisation Journal reported high respiratory disorder symptoms among students living in Chandni Chowk (66%) in North Delhi, Mayapuri (59%) in West Delhi and Sarojini Nagar (46%) in South Delhi.
Meanwhile, what’s the govt doing?
On January 7, the Supreme Court-nominated Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA), along with Centre for Science and Environment, suggested various measures to control air pollution in Delhi, including the closure of schools on ‘red alert’ days when pollution levels cross a specified limit.
But the government, in a joint affidavit by the ministries of environment, road transport and petroleum, responded: “With regard to closing of schools on red alert days, it is respectfully submitted that exposure of schoolgoing children to higher level of pollution occurs only for limited period, during travel. Moreover, most of the schools are closed for winter break.”