Chest docs plan fireworks and traffic drive

New Delhi, Nov. 13: Chest physicians across India who have often campaigned against tobacco now appear to be training their sights on urban traffic emissions and festival fireworks.

The Indian Chest Society, a body of medical professionals, plans to use research data that establish links between air pollution and ill health to guide national and state policies, society fellows said.

"We want to influence policies to minimise the risks from all sources of air pollution ' and that includes traffic emissions and fireworks," said Aloke Gopal Ghoshal, director of the National Allergy Asthma and Bronchitis Institute, Calcutta, who is also president-elect of the chest society.

Ghoshal said the members of the society were currently collecting epidemiological data from Calcutta and other cities to rigorously demonstrate the health risks and costs of air pollution.

Chest physicians say they brace themselves for spurts in patients needing hospitalisation because of severe attacks of asthma or chronic bronchitis during the Diwali week.

But they view tobacco as the bigger health hazard. While the spikes in air pollution triggered by Diwali fireworks against baseline levels of urban traffic emissions may exacerbate respiratory illnesses, they say, smoking poses a far greater danger.

"Smoking delivers far more toxins in a concentrated manner than breathing polluted air," said Jai Kumar Samaria, a chest physician at the Institute of Medical Sciences, Banaras Hindu University, and the secretary of the chest society. "A campaign driven by doctors to clean the air over our cities is long overdue," he added.

A nationwide study of the epidemiology of asthma and chronic bronchitis covering 12 cities and released earlier this year has estimated the prevalence of chronic bronchitis at 4 per cent among adults aged 35 years or above.

Non-government environmental activists believe that an intense and sustained campaign from the medical community would complement their efforts in trying to coax the government into taking actions to reduce air pollution levels.

"A concerted campaign by the medical community might push the government into paying more attention to this issue," said Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director for air pollution research at the non-government Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), New Delhi.

The CSE has repeatedly pointed out that the growing numbers of private vehicles, including diesel-powered cars, have pushed levels of air pollution over large cities beyond acceptable limits.

"A strong medical voice in this campaign has become even more important after the reclassification of diesel earlier this year as a carcinogen in the same category as tobacco," Roychowdhury said.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer in Lyons, France, an agency of the WHO, in June this year classified diesel engine exhaust as a Group I carcinogen based on what it said was "sufficient evidence that exposure is associated with an increased risk of lung cancer".