Priyansh, a student of fourth standard, was scared when he saw his bloodshot eyes in the mirror of his school restroom one morning this month.
He had felt a burning sensation in his eyes as he got out of the school bus and rubbed them vigorously.
“I was going to my school in the school bus when I noticed that the view outside the windshield was blurred. I was really, really scared and thought this might lead to an accident. I even asked the driver uncle if he wasn’t afraid of hitting someone on the road,” narrated Priyansh with a puzzled look on his face.
“I wanted to ask my class-teacher about this smoke-like thing that was everywhere on the road. But when I stepped out of the bus, I felt a burning sensation in my eyes. I rubbed them hard until they were red. A teacher saw me in this situation and asked me to go to the restroom to wash my eyes with cold water. The moment I saw my own face in the mirror I was very, very scared,” continued the 10-year-old with the same expressions.
“Later, our teacher explained that the smoke-like thing is due to the increase in pollution which is also leading to the irritation in my eyes and those of my classmates. We were advised to wear masks on a regular basis until the situation is under control. Within a day or two, the schools were shut down as well,” concluded Priyansh.
Dr A Majumdar, a Delhi-based paediatric pulmonologist told Patriot, “The pollution, apart from its very visible effects on Delhi’s population, took a huge toll on the city’s children.”
Priyansh’s mother, Aarti Upadhyay told Patriot that she was very scared when he returned that day.
“I discussed it in great detail with my husband and we even planned that we’ll go back to our hometown for a while if the pollution continues to increase. Priyansh was complaining about irritation in his throat and nose, and his eyes were completely red,” added Aarti.
“I can’t even imagine what we will have to face in the near future if the pollution continues to increase in the upcoming years. For now, moving back to our hometown for a while seems an easy option as Priyansh is still in primary school. But as he progresses, God forbid, pollution might have a much worse effect on his health. Leaving Delhi for health reasons will obviously worsen the prospects of the child. Schools are everywhere. But Delhi offers a lot more – top colleges and universities, and also work opportunities,” Aarti continued with a worried look as Priyansh completed his homework.
“There are very hard decisions one has to take for children. Being a mother, I can’t see my child in pain. The pollution might lead to respiratory issues, as most of the children of his age group are already dealing with asthma and other Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). This is all because of us. We were using air-conditioners for hours and hours. We use different vehicles to commute, we too have played a role in increasing the levels of pollution. We don’t have any other option than to reap what we have sown,” concluded Aarti.
The classroom situation
Shivani, who teaches class three students in a government school, told Patriot that there has been a sudden drop in class attendance.
“The children are usually exhausted and they don’t want to go out and play on the ground during recess hours. The continuous coughs make me really concerned about their health. Almost all of these students are coming from really marginalised backgrounds where having food thrice a day is termed as luxury. It is impossible for their parents to take them to doctors every once in a while, and pay for their medical needs,” she added.
Anubha (name changed), who teaches in the primary section of a private school in Delhi’s south-east district, highlighted the issues and the predicaments that pupils are facing on a daily basis.
Anubha said, “When COVID hit us, the children were severely impacted and the pandemic obviously had a long-term effect on their immunity, which was visible in the classroom. The students were usually suffering from viral, fever, cough, headaches and several similar problems. These health-related issues became the reason for a lot of students to miss classes on a regular basis. As time progressed, things slowly and steadily got back to normal before the extreme levels of pollution struck.”
She further added that nowadays, some parents are reluctant to send their children to school, and those who come to school often face problems like a sore throat and burning eyes. Most of the students request breaks because of headaches.
The teachers refrain from sending students out on the ground for recess and play activities unless the sun is out, and they ask them to keep their masks on even in the classes. However, all of that has not been of much help till now.
Anubha felt that preventive measures cannot be forced on the kids. Instead, they should be made to understand the importance of these practices, which is a more successful strategy.
She told the story of a boy named Hritansh in third grade. He was one of the most playful, naughty and mischievous kids among all. He never believed in following rules and regulations, even after the school opened following a gap of two years.
“As a preventive measure, we had asked the students to come to school with their masks on but Hritansh never seemed to care,” she explained.
“Even after complaining to his parents about his indiscipline, Hrishant barely seemed to mend his ways. But since last month, he has been voluntarily covering his mouth with the mask because of difficulty in breathing,” she said.
When Anubha asked him the reason behind him wearing the mask, he said, “I always feel something is going on in my nose which creates a sense of irritation.”
Hritansh’s state made Anubha really curious about the effect of pollution on kids.
From the doctor’s desk
Dr Gorika Bansal, a paediatrician and new-born and child specialist in Green Park, south Delhi, talked about the problems children are facing due to the poor air quality.
“The air we breathe is very polluted. It is important that we protect our children and their environment because they are the most affected by poor air quality, and their lungs, which are still developing, make them very vulnerable to allergies and pollutants. Long-term problems can arise, predisposing kids to asthma, respiratory problems, and, as studies have shown, even cancer in certain cases,” stated Bansal.
As per Bansal, pollution can also lead to issues like preterm birth or low birth rate. What people don’t realise is that these allergies are the next pandemic and they are being disregarded by everyone.
“Schools have reopened, and education is unavoidable. But how do parents bring their children to school while still worried about their health?” the doctor asked.
Bansal pointed out a few precautions that need to be taken.
- When going out, make sure children are wearing N-95 masks. Normal face masks with double layers might also be effective.
- Do not send children out on an empty stomach. Instead, feed them antioxidant-rich foods like nuts and fruits and keep them hydrated because hydration removes the toxic pollutants
- Ask kids to gargle with honey or use nasal sprays to prevent soreness in their throats.
- Filter the surroundings by using an air purifier or, especially in the afternoon, open the windows and doors so that sunshine can purify the air inside.
- Allow kids to go out and play in the evenings, especially if they want to. Start playing with them indoors from now on since playing outside cane raise their respiratory rate and exposes them to more toxic pollutants.
A bulk of these preventive measures are usually centred on remaining indoors, which can have a detrimental effect on children’s mental health, said Bansal.
“Staying indoors for an extended period of time can also have a negative impact. When children stay indoors, their screen time increases and unhealthy eating habits develop. This is where parents must intervene and spend time with their children to make them understand the importance of these protective measures,” she said.
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