High levels of dust in the city generated by construction projects and bad roads has created health hazards, as seen in the SITE area and (right) North Nazimabad. —Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
High levels of dust in the city generated by construction projects and bad roads has created health hazards, as seen in the SITE area and (right) North Nazimabad. —Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

KARACHI: Health experts have raised alarm over the unusually high number of patients they are examining these days with upper and lower respiratory tract infections and allergies and believe that the major contributing factors to these ailments were high levels of dust pollution in the city and changing weather conditions.

They said patients with chronic asthma or those vulnerable to asthma, apart from the elderly and children, were the worst sufferers as these environmental conditions were aggravating their ailments.

“There is a huge increase in the number of patients reporting with upper respiratory tract infections including rhinitis characterised by a runny nose, sneezing, stuffiness and sinusitis manifesting with fever, headaches, cough and sore throat,” said Dr Qaiser Sajjad, a senior ear-nose-throat (ENT) specialist.

Govt indifference

Dr Sajjad was of the opinion that while there could be multiple factors for poor air quality, what’s visible to the naked eye was the flying dust in the city due to the ongoing constructions, broken roads and the debris lying along roads.

“The irony is if you park your newly washed car anywhere in the city, you would see that it would be covered with dust in two to three hours.

“Dust doesn’t remain restricted to one place and spreads with the wind, at times through other means, such as vehicle tires,” he said, regretting the lack of government oversight over the construction of various development projects in the city.

‘The elderly and children under seven are more vulnerable as they have a weak immune system’

“These project developers should be bound under the law to sprinkle their construction material with water so that chances of harm by flying dust is minimised,” he said, adding that people should also take ownership of their localities and pressurise their elected representatives to ensure responsible attitude on the part of project developers.

Dr Tariq Rafi, another senior ENT specialist, was of the view that cases of allergies generally increased at the onset of winter.

“What’s, however, deteriorating environmental conditions is high levels of dust polluting the air. People should avoid going to places with flying dust or use protective masks, if they go out.

“Those who are vulnerable to allergies should also stop interaction with animals at this time of the season and try and visit places with fresh air,” he said.

In addition, one should avoid smoking/passive smoking and minimise use of air conditioners as they created dryness and circulated the same [polluted] air in the room, he suggested.

To a question about prolonged exposure to dust pollution, he said it could cause asthma and bronchitis, in both cases the airways become inflamed, making it harder for air to move into the lungs causing symptoms like shortness of breath, coughing and chest tightness.

“The elderly and children under seven are more vulnerable as they have a weak immune system. In extreme cases, there is a danger of pneumonia, which can be life-threatening,” he said.

Dr Kamran Khan, who works at the chest department of the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre, is equally concerned as he is seeing a lot of cases with allergic rhinitis as well as patients whose asthma had exacerbated, requiring emergency care.

“We have been handling a high burden of such patients for over a month or so. Children and women patients are reporting more. Presently, around 1,000 asthma patients are registered with the JPMC; these patients are visiting the facility more frequently these days with complaints of nasal/eye discharge, coughing and wheezing. Many patients are directly reporting to the emergency department with severe asthma attack,” he said.

The hospital, he said, had to add more beds to the 100-bedded ward to accommodate increasing number of patients.

Drinking hot liquids increases immunity

Suggesting measures for protection, Dr Nadeem Rizvi, a senior pulmonologist, said people should avoid dust, smoke and strong smell.

“Drink hot liquids as they help improve blood circulation in the throat, which increases immunity against infectious agents and throat allergies,” he said.

He strongly recommended wearing good quality disposable protective masks, especially for bike riders, which could easily be purchased from a medical store.

“If that is not available, one should at least cover the nose with a piece of cotton cloth for protection against dust pollution. But, that cloth should be washed daily,” he said.

He lamented negligence and apathy on the part of the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation, cantonment boards and the Defence Housing Authority, which let sweepers be exposed to dust during their duties without wearing any protective gear.

The same attitude, he emphasised, was required from employers at industries where chemicals and other harmful agents were handled.

No action by Sepa

It is important to mention here that three air quality monitoring stations of the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa), which were made operational on the intervention of a Supreme Court-mandated water commission last year, have been dysfunctional once again for the past many months for want of maintenance.

Sources said that Sepa didn’t have the required funds and signed an agreement with a non-governmental organisation to do the needful.

No Sepa official was available for comment on the growing dust pollution in the city, the health problems being caused by it and the action taken by the department on its data.

“It also needs to explain why air quality standards were changed after devolution for Sindh as they strongly deviated from the WHO guidelines. The SEQs allow higher levels of pollutants,” a Sepa official said on condition of anonymity.

Published in Dawn, November 17th, 2019