Last Wednesday, when pollution in the city peaked with the Air Quality Index (AQI) hovering at 275, the worst after Diwali last year when the AQI level was 319, Parth Shah (26), a sound engineer, suffered coughing fits and breathlessness though the day. By the weekend, he had purchased a nebuliser to tackle any sudden respiratory attack.
While respiratory infections are routine in winter, cases have worsened this year, say doctors who added that many patients were taking longer than a week to recover. The pollution levels have been particularly bad before sunrise when temperatures are low.
“I could not breathe properly for 24 hours. I did not take nebuliser support then, but I went to my home town in Madhya Pradesh and felt the difference in the air. It was fresher. Before returning to Mumbai, I purchased a nebuliser,” said Shah, adding he had an existing respiratory illness that was aggravated by bike rides.
General physician Dr Anil Ballani, attached to Hinduja Hospital, said he is advising his patients not to go for walks as pollution is higher in the early mornings and evenings. “If my patients still want to go for walks, I am suggesting them disposable masks. At least in 20 per cent cases of respiratory problems I am currently seeing, I am prescribing patients a mask,” he said.
Those with old upper respiratory tract infections, history of tuberculosis, asthma, or those with an allergic reaction to pollutants are more prone to prolonged coughing fits. “Instead of 3-4 days, patients are taking over a week to recover,” said Dr Shahid Barmare, physician attached with Kohinoor Hospital in Kurla. He recently treated a 22-year-old man from Kurla who suffered sleepless nights due to coughing fits for two weeks. “He is a non-smoker, his X-ray and other tests were clear. We are seeing patients with no existing medical history get coughing bouts,” Barmare said.
According to experts, air pollution is at its peak in mornings and evenings. “The pollution is always the highest when temperature is the lowest. The temperature is minimum in the early morning around 4 am till the sun rises. Air pollutants are trapped close to the surface due to an ‘inversion layer’. The concentration of pollutants increases and it does not get vertically dispersed. Again in the evening the pollutants build up as the temperature declines. Thus air pollution is lesser during the day than in the evening,” said Dr Gufran Beig, Director, System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research (SAFAR).
On February 7, AQI rose to 275, the worst recorded for the year. On Sunday, however, Mumbai experienced the cleanest air this year so far with the AQI at 63, marking ‘good’ air quality. On Monday, the AQI continued to be good, at 79. Only Navi Mumbai recorded poor air quality at ‘very poor’ levels of 337. “The air quality in the city last week was bad, but since yesterday it has been very good. The temperature is still low yet the winds are very high so the pollutants are getting dispersed,” added Beig.
Generally, the air quality during this time of the year is known to be satisfactory or moderate. “It is uncommon for the city to experience such poor air quality in February. However due to westerly disturbances, there was a lot of moisture in the air which kept pollutants trapped in the air,” he added.
According to Dr Nandu Vijay, general physician with Bhatia Hospital, those going for jogging or brisk walks in the morning are more prone to breathing problems because they take deeper breaths and gulp down more pollutants.
In Andheri, another physician, Dr Siddharth Lalitkumar, said he is seeing more respiratory illnesses in women and senior citizens. “We don’t know the reason behind it. I am seeing at least 10-15 patients a day for respiratory illness with similar symptoms,” Lalitkumar said.