Following Diwali celebrations in India, major cities in the country are now be faced with sever levels of air pollution originating from the combustion of black powder released by fireworks and other pyrotechnic items . Although this is an issue that spawns every year, pollution levels are said to have reached record levels compared to 2015 and 2014, partly due to meteorological factors such as low wind speed, moisture and lower temperatures which prevents the dissipation of fine particles.
Exposure to these fine particles is a major public health issue especially in segments of the population already diagnosed with respiratory deficiencies. This is particularly true in India where mortality rates due to chronic respiratory diseases are among the highest in the world.
Depending on the size of these particles, they cause a variety of illness ranging from mild temporary irritation to serious chronic diseases such as cancer.
Particles with a diameter of 10 micrometers (PM 10) and less are considered the most harmful as they are small enough to evade the body’s filters and pass through the entire respiratory system. Travelling from the upper respiratory tract which consists of the nose, sinus, pharynx and larynx, the smaller particles end up accumulating in the lower respiratory tract (bronchioles, alveolar ducts, and alveolar sacs) where gas exchanges occur. These are eventually removed by the macrophages of the immune system.
Although the larger particles are responsible for ailments such as the irritation of the aqueous fluids of the eyes and mucus of the nose and throat, particles that are 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM 2.5) and less are small enough to enter the bloodstream and affect other parts of the body. Long term exposure to these is not only associated with reduced lung function, severe asthma and sometimes lung cancer, but heart diseases such as irregular heartbeat and heart attacks.
According to the Central Pollution Control Board, levels of PM 2.5 in Delhi have reached 999 micrograms per cubic meter in areas near the US embassy, which is more than 15 times the safe levels of PM 2.5 set at 60 micrograms per cubic meter.
Not only are fine particles harmful to the human body, but to the environment as well. Fine particles can travel long distances and depending on their chemical composition, can affect crops, plants, forests and entire ecosystems by modifying acidity levels of soil and water.
Health agencies in India have advised affected populations to avoid outdoor physical activities and wait till the levels of fine particles decrease.