Air quality readings in Chennai show a significant increase in the pollution levels after residents went about burning old items as per custom early in the morning on Bhogi day, first day of the four-day Pongal festival. Real-time pollution data available on the Air Quality Index (AQI) of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) shows that particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5) touch ‘severe’ levels during this time with Air Quality Index (AQI) usually more than 400.

Bhogi Ups The Risk Of Heart Disease By Dr Vigil Rahulan

According to the CPCB, if the pollutant level is 'severe', it can induce respiratory illness on prolonged exposure or seriously affect those already having respiratory problems. Particulate matters measuring 2.5 micrometres and less in dimension are deadly, as they can penetrate deep into the lungs and cause breathing problems, or they can even enter into your bloodstream.

Burning tyres releases a toxic soup of pollutants. Children are especially at risk. Hundreds of different toxic pollutants are created by burning tyres as well as a tremendous number of small particles that settle deep in the lungs. Breast milk contaminated by the organic pollutants on the particles released from burning tyres will be transferred from a nursing mother to her baby.

Children, fetuses, nursing babies, elderly, asthmatics, immune suppressed individuals are all much more vulnerable to the pollutants released burning tyres. Small particulates released by burning tires worsen asthma and may contribute to heart disease.

Exposure to high levels of air pollution during pregnancy has been linked to miscarriages as well as premature birth, autism spectrum disorder and asthma in children. Air pollution may damage children’s brain development, and pneumonia, which kills almost 1 million children under the age of 5 every year, is associated with air pollution. Children who breathe in higher levels of pollutants also face a greater risk of short-term respiratory infections and lung damage.

Other conditions associated with high levels of air pollution include emphysema and chronic bronchitis, as well as lung cancer. Pollutants can affect cardiovascular health by hardening the arteries and increase the risk of heart attack and strokes, and there is even emerging evidence that air pollution may be linked to mental health conditions and degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia.

Outdoor air pollution is the fifth leading cause of deaths in India. This alarming piece of information have drawn everyone’s attention and forced experts to take stock of pollution trends in India’s cities – including Chennai.

A recent analysis of Chennai’s air quality, done by Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), the New Delhi-based research and advocacy body, indicates that though Chennai shows deceptively low to moderate pollution levels because of its location near the sea, local impacts and exposure are high and the pollution levels are rising steadily, thereby increasing public health risks. Despite having better multi-modal public transport compared to many other mega cities, motorization rate is high.

CSE’s assessment shows how car-centric infrastructure – flyovers, signal-free roads, foot over bridges – are converting zero emissions walk trips to long motorized trips adding enormously to pollution. Over the last two decades, share of bus and train ridership has dropped drastically. The share of personal vehicle trips has increased. Chennai needs to quickly scale up public transport, integrated multi-modal transport options, car restraint policies and walking for clean air.

Dr Vijil Rahulan, MD, FCCP, is the Head of the Department, Institute of Pulmonology, Critical Care & Lung Transplantation, Gleneagles Global Health City, Chennai