Doctors on Thursday strongly recommended wearing masks and staying indoors as the air quality in the National Capital Region (NCR) suddenly deteriorated to severe levels due to a dust storm that began on Wednesday and is likely to persist till Friday.
"For people with respiratory conditions like asthma, chronic obstructive airways disease (COAD) or emphysema even small increases in dust concentration can make their symptoms worse," said R.K. Singal, Principal Consultant and Director, BLK Super Speciality Hospital.
Dust particles small enough to be inhaled may cause irritation of the eyes, coughing, sneezing, hay fever and asthma attacks. Babies, young children and elderly people are also more likely to develop health problems from long term exposure to high levels of dust.
The NCR on Wednesday saw a sudden rise in heat and dust brought through winds from Rajasthan, Iran and Afghanistan. Even on Thursday, the NCR woke up under the shade of dust with the minimum temperature at 34 degrees Celsius, five notches above the season's average.
High particulate matter (PM) 10 levels in the capital are due to high wind speeds which have brought dust particles from neighbouring Rajasthan. The real-time air quality index recorded in South Delhi's R.K. Puram area had breached the 999 level on Thursday morning, Singal said.
"Anything above 100 is considered unhealthy by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). The average PM 10 levels was over 800 today, over four times the average air pollution recorded this month," he said.
The type and size of a dust particle determines how toxic the dust is and the harmful impact on health is mostly determined by the amount of dust present in the air and how long one is exposed to it.
"These particles usually consist of sand particles, pollens, dust, ash and other fine particles. Dust pollution is a major concern because dust can cause several diseases in humans ranging from minor allergies to fatal lung and heart diseases," said Vikramjeet Singh, Senior Consultant, Internal Medicine, Aakash Healthcare Super Speciality Hospital.
"This is because dust particles can be as tiny as a few micrometers, small enough to enter our respiratory system via our nose. To prevent the effects of dust pollution, it is recommended to wear masks when going out and staying indoors," Singh said.
Dust pollution is caused by deforestation, desertification, construction, mining, dust storms and other natural and man-made processes. Apart from vehicular and industrial emissions, one of the main reasons for air pollution in Delhi-NCR is the construction dust.
People with existing respiratory and heart conditions, including smokers, are at greater risk of developing long-term health problems.
Anyone who regularly experiences shortness of breath or hay fever type symptoms from breathing dust should consult their doctor.