Construction dust: A major contributor to air pollution

Dust particles from construction sites pollute the air.

By Surekha Santhanagopalan

If you live in Bengaluru, chances are high that you cross some form of construction work on a regular basis. While most people accept it as part of life in a metropolis, very few are aware that regular exposure to road work or construction activities has a detrimental effect on health.

An urban emissions report published in Atmospheric Pollution Research revealed that while transport is the key source of emissions in Bengaluru, on-road suspended dust and construction dust contributes to 23% of air pollution in the tech city.

Between 2003 and 2017, the fast-growing Bengaluru added more than 10,000 km of road to cater to the increasing vehicle population and reduce traffic congestion on roads. The report stated that unless there is an aggressive strategy to improve urban planning and public transport options, emissions under the business-as-usual scenario is expected to increase by at least 50% in 2030.

With increasing construction activities in the city, pulmonologists concur that they are witnessing an increase in the number of respiratory cases over the years. 

“Construction work releases a lot of chemicals that can enter the airways and exposure to such particles, cement and sand can lead to respiratory ailments,” says Dr Sandeep H.S., a consultant pulmonologist at the Bangalore Institute of Respiratory Diseases and Sleep Disorders (BIRDS).

Carcinogenic chemicals

Many chemicals like asbestos, silica, formaldehyde, di-isocyanates, flame retardants are used in construction work, and many of them are carcinogenic.

“Particles less than 2.5mm can go deep into the lungs and cause inflammatory changes in the lungs. Silica exposure at sandblasts can cause fibrosis and breathing difficulty. People who are exposed regularly are also vulnerable to tuberculosis. At any quarries or digging work such silica particles are released,” points out Dr Sunil Kumar K, consultant interventional pulmonologist, Aster CMI Hospital, Bangalore. Even during demolitions, lead and mercury get disseminated in the open, impacting not just the air but also underground water.

Coal tar is another issue at road construction sites as it is highly noxious to the airways. “Cement dust and fine particles from construction sites get dissipated in the air leading to chronic bronchitis and exacerbation of asthma symptoms. Since it is dissipated in the air it cannot be contained,” points out Dr Vasunethra Kasaragod, chest specialist at Vikram Hospital.

According to him, about 49% of cases of COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) come from non-smokers and air pollution is a major contributor to their condition. Continued exposure to low levels of such pollutants can lead to interstitial lung diseases and COPD over time, states Dr Sandeep, also the joint secretary of Karnataka Pulmonologists Association.

People with prolonged exposure are also at a higher risk for pulmonary fibrosis, allergic conjunctivitis, chronic massive cough, cardiac and respiratory events, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and lung cancer.

Kids are, no doubt, a vulnerable group as their lungs grow till the age of 12. “A study showed that up to six years the lung development of kids in India and the US was the same but between ages 6 and 12, there was a decline in the lung growth in Indian kids. One of the reasons for this could be exposure to pollutants,” explains Dr Kasaragod.

How to control the mess

The government has made it mandatory for construction site owners to take dust prevention measures for minimising the environmental impact, but stringent implementation is needed to avert a health crisis. “Construction should be done scientifically to minimise the dissipation of dust in the air. Watering the area around the site can prevent dust from spreading. Premade concrete is another solution that can be implemented,” says Dr Kasaragod.

Covering sand with a mesh and using non-toxic paints are some more measures that one can adopt.

At an individual level, you can use respirators, which are special masks that can filter out such dust. Maintaining the ventilation of the house can help and so will having indoor plants. You can also avoid taking roads where construction work is going on.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently stated that nine out of 10 people now breathe polluted air, which kills seven million people every year. And one-third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease are due to pollution. 

(The author is Bengaluru - based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)

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