Pollution from construction sites still a cause for worry

Environment Health

Construction activities fell by over 50 percent in the last few years, but health-related risks continue.

The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) has sanctioned fewer construction activities in the city but construction continues to contribute to increasing pollution and respiratory diseases, say medical experts. –Senior citizens, construction workers, and other vulnerable sections of the population face the brunt of such pollution.

The number of constructions plans for housing sanctioned by the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) in JDTP (Joint Director of Town Planning) North and South area has fallen from 324 in 2014-15 to 126 in 2019-20.

Fall in construction activities in the city. Source: BBMP

The Urban Emission report states the major cause of pollution in the city is ongoing construction due to the rise in demand for housing.

Who is the most affected?

Greenpeace Southeast Asia report shows that Bengaluru witnessed an estimated 12,000 deaths in 2020 due to air pollution, these deaths have been attributed to pollution from PM 2.5 particles, such as those that emanate from construction activities.

Doctors have reported that there has been a visible rise in respiratory conditions like asthma due to such pollution. “Some patients have reported that on days when construction is happening, they feel symptoms like shortness of breath and cough. On days when there is no such activity, they do not report such symptoms,” said Dr. Venketeshwara Reddy, a pulmonologist.

While doctors say that pollution from construction activities is not the sole reason for rise in respiratory diseases, it definitely contributes to respiratory morbidities among patients. “The elderly age group and those who already have some form of respiratory abnormality such as asthma, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), bronchitis are the ones who are more susceptible to harmful effects from this kind of pollution,” said Dr. Sandeep, a pulmonologist at Bengaluru Institute of Respiratory Diseases and Sleep Disorders (BIRDS).

Residents who live near construction sites also face difficulties. “I have already been diagnosed with a deviated septum so any additional triggers such as dust in the air and pollution due to construction often lead to an allergy attack which further causes major sinus infections, closed throat etc.,” said Danita Yadav, a resident of the city. We need to wear a mask sometimes even inside the house when construction work is happening nearby and keeping anti-allergy medicines and nasal drops ready helps with the situation, she added.

How does it affect people?

Jay Mehta, Senior Environmental Engineer said that suspension of silica dust and fine cement particles that arise during construction activities contributes to PM 2.5 air pollution which is very lethal and can lead to respiratory disorders “PM 10 particles cannot be inhaled into the nasal cavity directly as they are large particles, however inhalation of fine PM 2.5 particles directly into the alveoli is associated with many health diseases such as bronchitis, other long-term pulmonary diseases and even cancer in some cases,” he added.

Not just residents who live near construction sites, even construction workers who are exposed to such environments for a long time are at serious risk of diseases and death, said Subhash Bhatnagar from NIRMANA Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) that works with construction workers. “If materials used in construction activities such as asbestos sheet and fibers from broken stone enter into the breathing system, it is deadly and cannot be curable,” he added. Workers are advised to use safety equipment such as glasses, mask, gloves, gum boots etc., however, they are usually not provided to them or they are not used to it, he said. “One-time order or direction from the government is not enough. Workers need to be briefed regularly on how to use safety equipment,” he added.

The Delhi government imposed a ban on construction and demolition activities in the city on Nov. 25, 2021, due to degrading air quality across the National Capital Region (NCR).      

 However, restricting such activities without prior intimation will lead to “financial insecurity and harassment” for the workers, according to Bhatnagar. Additionally, a lot of construction activities do not cause pollution at all. “Work activities of plumbers, electricians, carpenters, painters etc. do not generate aerosols that cause pollution. A blanket ban on all construction activities leaves many people vulnerable,” he added.

What can be done?

Dust sweeping measures, regular cleaning, and spraying of water on roads must be adopted by governments to mitigate the harmful effects of pollution, according to Mehta. Additionally, policies to reduce local sources of pollution such as crop burning and automobile pollution which adds to the mixture of pollution must also be implemented, he said.

Doctors also recommend the use of good-quality respirators for those who are in close proximity to construction sites. “HEPA filter masks can also be worn to help against the dust and one must try to avoid long-term exposure to such sites,” said Reddy.