As It Happens

Doctor faces 'helpless' situation as New Delhi's toxic smog peaks

New Delhi is currently blanketed with some of the worst smog the Indian city's ever seen. Dr. Sai Kiran Chaudhari studies people's lungs and says it's having an impact on residents' life expectancy.

Dr. Sai Kiran Chaudhari says long-term effects of air pollution will lower residents' life expectancy

Children wearing masks walk on a skywalk in New Delhi, India. (Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters)


The air in New Delhi isn't just thick — it's poisonous.

Dr. Sai Kiran Chaudhari, the head of pulmonology at the Delhi Heart and Lung Institute hospital, is seeing the effects of the toxic smog firsthand in the patients he treats. 

Levels of particulate matter in the air of the Indian capital city have been maxing out at nearly 10 times above the healthy limit. Schools are shut down, residents have been told to stay indoors and a public health emergency has been declared.

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke to Chaudhari about the toxic smog. Here is part of their conversation.

Can you describe what it's like to be outside in Delhi?

Delhi, since last Sunday, was enveloped by a smog — greyish haze — for most of the time. It was like if you're breathing something foreign. It didn't feel like you're breathing air.

And today, we did have some little bit of sunshine after seven days. The other days we didn't even see the sun. The sun could not even penetrate.

Air pollution levels in India's capital are off the scale. The instruments that measure the smog are maxed out and a public health emergency has been declared. (Manish Swarup/The Associated Press)

And what effect is that having on people?

The smog would make you breathe not so fresh oxygen. You are breathing in pollutants. The number of people using masks has definitely gone up. It's very tough.

You could feel there's something foreign in the air. It would irritate your nose, your throat. And yesterday was worse. 

I can hear even as you speak there's some congestion. You're clearing your throat. Are people coughing and sneezing? Are their lungs trying to cope with this?

Yes. I did feel I did have a cough, but it settled down after two or three days. Most of the people have experienced the same symptoms too.

As a doctor, you're concerned not just with the immediate effects that you're seeing, but the chronic effects. Can you describe what concerns you have there?

Repeated exposure will increase the symptoms and intensity. And the duration of these [effects] would increase subsequently over the period of years. A middle-aged person would feel that impact more.

So the impact of this pollution will definitely cause a decline in your respiratory functions.

Having lived in New Delhi all of her life, Divya Taneja has never experienced such record high levels of smog in her city. 4:52

You mention the elderly. But children, I would imagine, this is not a great environment for them to be growing up in.

Yes. It definitely would affect the growth aspects of children also. They would be prone to recurrent infections. The immune system would be affected.

I think life expectancy is likely to be reduced by 2 ½ years, at least, to five years, and the impact would be that most patients would have more cardiovascular effects also because ultimately some pollutant would get into the bloodstream, get absorbed, and cause its harmful effects too.

It doesn't seem that any of the sources of this pollution are being dealt with. In particular, the farmers are still burning off the stubble in their fields to clear it because, well, they don't have the tractors that could actually plow the field. So, none of that has changed, has it?

I think the farmer prefers that the cost of investment to him to buy that instrument or to buy that equipment is probably more than the fine that is being imposed on him to burn it.

He'd probably look at the monetary gain, considering again that the agricultural sector, the agricultural economy, is also suffering.

But given the health issues, that this is a very, very major problem, and you're seeing these chronic issues, health concerns, why doesn't the government increase the fines?

I think the government and the administrators should be in a better position to answer those questions.

We are still looking at other sources of pollution — the increase in the number of vehicles, the increase in the number of construction, the increasing urbanization — that is also contributing.

We're talking about people who can go and see a doctor who have been instructed to stay in the house, and kids are not going to school. But what about the millions of people in Delhi who live and work outside?

I think they would be the ones who are impacted the most. The rickshaw pullers, the auto rickshaw, the labourers, the bus drivers — those who are constantly exposed to pollution for, say, eight hours a day.

What's it like for you to try and treat people knowing that what you're up against, you have no control over?

You are helpless at a stage because you know that this is going to spirally go downward over a period of years.

You can treat him temporarily. Temporarily give him relief. But constant exposure to the pollution is definitely going to deteriorate his lung functions.

Written by Jeanne Armstrong and John McGill. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 


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