How bad is Bangalore air pollution and how can we deal with it

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Background

I moved from USA to Bangalore with my wife a few years back. Soon after moving to Bangalore, my wife developed Allergic Rhinitis. Allergic Rhinitis is essentially the younger sibling of Asthma. The problem started in September 2013 and continued on till April 2014 (September to April is the high allergy season in Bangalore). During this time, my wife suffered from constant runny nose and difficulty in breathing. This was also coupled with frequent infections. We met with several doctors, but they simply prescribed antibiotics for the infections. No one was able to really diagnose the underlying problem. Next allergy season, my wife started showing the same symptoms once again. This time, she was joined by our 1 year son, who had the exact same problems. This time, their problems were finally diagnosed correctly by a well known Bangalore doctor. He started both of them on daily dose of steroid inhalers.

Troubled by their debilitating problems, I started doing my own research into the reason my wife and son contracted this problem and potential solutions. I found that a lot of people in Bangalore suffer from similar issues due to high pollen concentration. There is a weed called Parthenium Hysterophorus (also called Congress Grass) which is responsible for high pollen concentration in Bangalore. A combination of this pollen along with high concentration of air pollutants, typically found in big cities, makes Bangalore a particularly bad place for people who are prone to respiratory problems.

Air Quality Measurements in India

One of the main focus of my investigation was to check how bad the air quality in Bangalore really was. Aqicn.org publishes real time air quality map for several parts of the world, including 70+ locations in India. As per this map, air pollution levels in Bangalore are actually better than most other major Indian cities.

Air Quality Measurements in Bangalore

To get direct data on air pollution that impacted my family, I decided to measure air quality in and around my house under different living conditions. I used Dylos Air Quality monitor for these measurements.

This monitor reports 2 numbers:

  • PM 2.5: These are small particles measuring 2.5 micrometers or less. These small particles consist of things like vehicle exhaust, soot and ash from burning of garbage and small metal particles etc. Prolonged exposure of these is very very harmful.
  • PM 10: These are larger particles measuring between 2.5 to 10 micrometers. Examples of these are pollen, dust and particles generated from grinding of rocks. These particles are relatively less harmful and usually only cause upper respiratory tract issues like allergic rhinitis and asthma. These particles are the reason for my family’s problems.

Table below reports the measurements I recorded for PM 2.5 and PM 10 in and around my house. The numbers are reported in the AQI scale (microgram / meter cube). All measurements were done at the same time of the day on a weekday using the same instrument (except one measurement, which was done during early morning hours). For each location, we have only made one or two measurements — thus, this is a completely unscientific report.

The table below provides the Indian AQI categories and ranges corresponding to different values of PM2.5 and PM10 and their resulting health impact.

Analysis of the Data

  1. Indoor, no a/c: These and most other measurements were made in Brigade Metropolis, Bangalore. Baseline air quality in Bangalore is bad, but not too bad. People like my wife and son, who are more sensitive and prone to allergies are affected by Bangalore air, but most healthy people should not face any air-pollution related problems.
  2. Indoor, a/c running: Air conditioner helps reduce large particles. Thus, staying in a/c should help people suffering from asthma and other breathing issues
  3. Indoor, pressure cooker running: Cooking releases particles in the air. However, neither of my wife or son’s conditions worsen during cooking (unless there are strong chilli fumes). Different individuals are likely to be prone to different types of allergens. Cooking fumes aren’t a problem in our case
  4. Indoor, 5am, no a/c: The air quality in the house was particularly good at this time. This must be because of low traffic through the night. This indicates that it does not take too long for pollution levels to go down once the source of pollution goes away.
  5. Outdoors: The air quality is only slightly worse outdoors than it is indoor
  6. Outdoors, 16th floor: One of the hypothesis that we wanted to test was whether air quality improves with elevation. The assumption was that the polluting particles must be heavier than air and thus, might remain closer to the ground. However, even on the 16th floor, which is about 50 meters above the ground level, the air quality remains the same. Maybe 16th floor is not enough — we might need to go higher to see reduction in pollution.
  7. Inside a/c car, usual traffic: Pollution on the road is not all that worse as compared to the pollution just outside my house. Both PM 2.5 and PM 10 particles diffuse very fast and very far. Thus, this finding is not surprising. We will have to get really far away from the city to see substantial reduction in pollution levels. This also indicates that you are unlikely to be able to avoid the ill-effects of pollution by choosing one specific sub-locality of your city over another
  8. Outdoor, Bangalore city outskirts: These measurements were made at Palm Meadows, Whitefield, which is fairly far off from city center. Even here, the pollution levels were quite comparable to other locations. This further strengthens the hypothesis that specific sub-locations within the city matter less as far as pollution is concerned.
  9. Outdoor, Coorg: We were surprised to find that the PM 2.5 numbers were pretty high even in Orange County, Coorg, which is surrounded by greenery and away from city pollution. However, PM 10 numbers there were very small. My wife and son did not show any symptoms of breathing problems when we were there. This confirms that their breathing problems are caused by PM 10 particles.
  10. Indoor, air purifier: I had installed a couple of air purifiers in my house. These measurements were made after about an hour of running of the purifiers. Air purifiers do help bring the air quality inside the house within perfect range.
  11. Indoor, Santa Clara, California, USA: Air quality at a friend’s place in USA is well within acceptable range.

Dealing with Breathing Problems

Collection of the data above helped me make the following decisions:

  1. Moving to a different location within the city is unlikely to help
  2. Moving to a higher story apartment is unlikely to help
  3. Air purifiers do work, we should use them
  4. Knowing that PM 10 is what causes our troubles, we should do whatever we can to minimize our exposure to these particles

Air Purifiers

The main outcome for me from this analysis was that air purifiers do work.

The air purifier installed at my home gets filled up with dust that needs to be cleaned up every week (see image). I am happier cleaning up this dust from the purifier than letting it go into my lungs. Some of you may wonder if the use of air purifier might make us dependent on it? As an analogy, doctors commonly recommend that it is important for children to get exposed to different types of infections since that helps build up their immunity. Similarly, if we expose our family to air pollution, maybe they will develop better immunity for it. Instead, if we try to keep them in the protected environment of air purifiers, they are likely to react more adversely to even a little bit of pollution.

While this is an interesting logic, I think the analogy is incorrect. A better analogy for air pollution is cigarette smoke. Would you ever consider exposing your family to cigarette smoke to make them immune to it? Given a chance, would you prefer to expose them to more smoke or less smoke?

In fact, if you are predisposed to breathing problems like my son or wife, doctors tell us that it is critical to bring the symptoms of allergy under control, if you want to give the patients any chance of developing any kind of resistance for their breathing problems. It is very hard for the body to develop resistance if it constantly remains in the overdrive mode in response to the allergies. This is the reason doctors strongly recommend regular dose of steroid inhalers, if need be.

Installation of air-purifiers is not going to eliminate your exposure to pollution completely. You will still step outdoors. You will still go to places that don’t have the purifiers. What air-purifiers will do is that they will cut down your cumulative exposure to pollution. Lesser the cumulative exposure, lesser the intensity of adverse reaction and thus greater the chance of your body developing better resistance.

My wife and son had really bad allergy seasons last couple of years. This year, they did much better. In fact, they did not even need to take steroids for most of this allergy season.

If you do plan to get an air purifier, do make sure to get one with HEPA filter. Also, do make sure to check the volume rating of the purifier and get one suitable for the size of your house.

Home Remedies

Following home remedies have been really helpful in reducing our exposure to the pollutants:

  1. Stay away from the triggers: Activities like playing on carpet or playing with soft toys etc. increases my son’s exposure to these particles. Realizing this, we ensured that we keep him away from these triggers as much as possible. We also frequently change his bedsheets and pillow covers. We use fabrics made of hypoallergenic material.
  2. Jal neti: Jal neti is a process in which you pour water through one nostril and allow it to flow out through the other nostril. In the process, the water cleans up your sinus. Frequent cleaning of sinuses helps reduce your lungs’ exposure to allergens. This has really worked for me and my father, who develop milder (compared to my wife and son) allergic symptoms every allergy season.
  3. Breathing exercises: Breathing exercises and yoga could help accelerate body’s resistance to these allergies. Asthma and rhinitis are reactions of your lung to the entry of foreign particles. They react by generating excessive mucus and by constricting which helps trigger coughing reaction. Basically, your lungs try to expel the unwanted foreign particles in any possible way. However, in the process, they are making breathing more difficult for you. This is where yoga and breathing exercises come into picture. These exercises will make your lungs stronger and increase their capacity.
  4. Eating black pepper: Chewing 4–5 whole back peppers with a little bit of sugar crystal (for taste) every morning might work for you. My father does this along with Jal neti every allergy season with good results.

Disclaimers

  • This is a completely unscientific study. With the time and resources I have, this is all I could do. The only conclusion I can confidently recommend to readers of this article is that you should install an air purifier at your home if you live in a polluted region.
  • If you are suffering from any breathing problems or other air pollution related problems, it is critical that you see a doctor and follow their recommendations.
  • I am not affiliated with any company or organization making or selling air purifiers or air quality monitor