Air pollution: Why more and more non-smokers are suffering critical lung disease

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NEW DELHI: Naresh Kumar had never smoked tobacco. He didn’t have a heart condition either. But for the last few days, he has found it difficult to breathe. When his condition didn’t improve, the 58-year-old Delhiite went to see a pulmonologist.

Kumar was shocked to find that he was suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a progressive disease of the lung that is caused mainly due to smoking. Pulmonologist Dr Vivek Nangia of Fortis Hospital, however, wasn’t surprised at the finding. “COPD among non-smokers isn’t rare anymore. For the last two to three years, I have been seeing several such cases,” Dr Nangia told TOI. He said that usually COPD among non-smokers is linked to prolonged exposure to biomass fuel or industrial pollutants, but the patients we see have been exposed to neither of the two.

“We suspect prolonged exposure to high levels of outdoor pollution behind the increase in COPD among non-smokers,” Dr Nangia claimed.

COPD is a progressive life-threatening lung disease that causes breathlessness. Stopping exposure to noxious agents — like outdoor pollutants or tobacco smoke — may result in improvement in lung function and slow or even halt progression of the disease.

However, according to a WHO document, once developed, COPD and its co-morbidities cannot be cured and thus must be treated continuously.

According to AIIMS director Dr Randeep Guleria, there isn’t enough data available on number of persons suffering from COPD in India who are non-smokers. “Theoretically, it is possible that long-term exposure to outdoor pollutants can cause the disease. Small children, who live in cities like Delhi where the level of pollution is high through most part of the year, are most vulnerable. We know for a fact that air pollution affects lung growth and it can certainly lead to COPD and other serious respiratory diseases if the exposure to pollutants remains high,” he said.

COPD is not curable, but treatment can relieve symptoms, improve the quality of life and reduce the risk of death. Dr Inder Mohan Chugh, director, interventional pulmonology and sleep medicine at Max Super Specialty Hospital, Shalimar Bagh, said often people mistake breathlessness and coughing as a sign of old age. However, increasing breathlessness is a red flag for COPD.

“COPD is most prominent during winters. The effect of cold weather on lungs can be extreme and chronic exposure to cold environments is known to cause dramatic and harmful changes to the respiratory system. Hence, it is important that one visits a specialist in case there is a single symptom indicating COPD. A simple spirometry (Pulmonary Function Test) test taken in time could save lives,” Dr Chugh explained.