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Indore, India

Survey Shows Working Women Face Health Impacts From Air Pollution in Indore, India

Advocate Rakhi Agrawal (44) is a practicing lawyer, and for the past 22 years has commuted from her home to the court, braving vehicular pollution on the roads. She has suffered two asthma attacks since 2009. 

“I am getting treatment for lung ailment for the last 13 years. The doctors have told me that vehicular pollution has severely damaged my lungs,” says Rakhi. 

She says she is also facing several skin problems that are linked to vehicular pollution. Dr Pramod Jhanwar, who is treating her, says, “Patient’s condition due to air pollution is a cause of major concern, and she will always have to take precautions.”

Young working women are facing similar problems. Vibhuti Malakar (24) is a sales manager by profession, and for the last three years has been exposed to at least an hour of vehicle fumes a day while commuting from her home to the office. As a result, she suffers from headaches and a burning sensation in her eyes. At present, Vibhuti is under medication. 

“The problems I face are due to vehicular pollution,” she says.

In reality, Rakhi Agrawal and Vibhuti Malakar are just two examples of the major problem faced by working women in Indore, India. To gauge the extent of the problems and how women are are coping with them, NaiDunia spoke to 75 women working in Indore, India between October and November 2022. The survey took opinions from women who work in offices, fieldwork, street vendors and factories. 

Troubled by pollution

According to the survey, 76.7% of working women are facing health problems due to vehicular pollution while commuting. 15.1% of the women say the dust generated due to poor condition of roads are also responsible. 

Only 8.2% of respondents said that factories are responsible for air pollution. Interestingly, 79.5% felt that although Indore has consistently been rated the "cleanest city" in India six times in a row, air quality can be improved if sustained efforts are made in that direction.

About 37.5% the women said they are exposed to vehicular pollution for at least one hour each day, while some women street vendors spend more than four hours amid smoke and fumes from vehicles.

Notably, 47.9% of women said they work in places where they constantly face vehicular pollution or noise pollution from vehicles, while only 17.8% of those surveyed said that they are not troubled by air or noise pollution due to vehicles at their workplace.

Inclement weather and doctor appointments

Being exposed to air and noise pollution while commuting, sometimes for hours, has a direct and debilitating effect on women’s health as their immunity gets compromised. Around 47.9% of working women said that they suffer from weakness even if there is a little change in weather.

Around 31.9% said that they have a burning sensation in their eyes due to smoke from vehicles. Some of the women complained of having trouble with breathing, sleeplessness and headaches. 

When respondents were asked whether vehicular pollution resulted in health problems, 47.9% held it responsible.

Cars and motorcycles on a street lined with trees
A survey of 75 working women in Indore found that 76.7% of them faced health problems due to vehicular pollution from commuting / Credit: Raju Panwar for NaiDunia.

Surprisingly, even though working women reported health problems like headaches, trouble sleeping, and burning sensations in the eyes, they did not consult doctors to treat these problems. Around 77.4% of the women surveyed said they had never consulted a doctor, and only 14.5% said that they had consulted a doctor to treat problems arising from vehicular pollution. 

Gynecologist Dr Ishita Ganguly says that women often ignore the ill effects of vehicular pollution and treat them as being normal. However, she advises working women that if they have trouble breathing, have chest pain, are always irritable, cannot sleep properly, sweat a lot or feel tired throughout the day, they must consult a doctor immediately. Otherwise, these small problems might result in a major health problems in future.

Protecting against pollution

The survey done by NaiDunia found that 58.1% of working women preferred using a scarf to protect themselves from smoke and dust while going to their workplace, while 19.4% wore masks, and 12.9% wore neither mask nor scarf. 

Dr Ishita Ganguly says that wearing a scarf provides a certain degree of protection from pollution, but it is not foolproof. While passing through areas with vehicular pollution, only masks can provide total protection, says Dr Ganguly, adding that thanks to Covid-19 there are good quality masks available on the market. 

Dr Ananya Roy, an environmental epidemiologist at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), says that if one is going out to work then one should use N95 or K95 masks. These masks help reduce the amount of polluted air one breathes in. 

Asthma specialist Dr Pramod Jhanwar says that vehicular emissions have dangerous gases like CO, NO2, SO2 and SC, and inhaling them can lead to itchy eyes, asthma, sleeplessness and headaches. According to Dr Jhanwar, 90% of air pollution in Indore is due to gases like carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, and sulfur oxide. 

Traffic rush

Women’s health specialist, Dr Ishita Ganguly says that vehicular pollution is a big problem in Indore, and the number of vehicles is increasing every year. Most people commute to and from the office at roughly the same time, causing a rush of vehicles that leads to pollution. Dr Ishita says vehicular emissions have killer gases like CO, NO2, SO2, CO2 and SC and they badly affect women’s health. 

Due to the increasing number of vehicles every year in the city, the air quality has deteriorated since 2005. The city has seen rapid development and the air is becoming stifling. This pollution affects everyone, but comparatively, working women are especially affected. 

Along with the increase in the city’s population, the number of working women has also increased, and they are all facing air pollution and the problems associated with it. Recently, Indore won the cleanest city of the country tag for the sixth time in a row, but every day women face polluted air while at work.

Researchers from the Sao Paulo University in Brazil have claimed that the chances of abortion among pregnant women who are exposed to air pollution are two-and-half times more than those not exposed to polluted air. The researchers came to this conclusion after studying the effect of pollution on 400 pregnant women, all of whom had undergone IVF treatment.

A growing problem

The quality of air in Indore is rapidly deteriorating. According to a study by the Union Environment Ministry, Indore is among 37 cities in the country where air quality has deteriorated between 2017 and 2021. The reports of the Pollution Control Board portray the same scenario. Compared to 2021, the level of pollution has increased in 2022. However, as a major relief, fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) levels have come down during this period. Also, several steps are being taken at the government administration level to bring down pollution.

According to Clean Air Catalyst (CAC) project leader Kaushik Raj Hazarika, “The Indore administration has done a commendable job in the field of waste management and the root cause of success is because of the inclusion and wholehearted support of the public and the sanitation workers in this project. Now, the public has to be sensitized about air pollution and its ill effects on people's health.” 

“Recently, the CAC and IMC jointly organized workshops on air pollution to create awareness among people and in the coming year similar events would be organized to create awareness among sections of people who are worst affected by air pollution,” says Kaushik who feels that such events should be held on a regular basis.

The extent of air pollution can be gauged from the fact that 35 lakh people in Indore have 27 lakh vehicles, which means that most people have a vehicle, according to data from a comprehensive mobility survey done by Metro Rail Corporation. 

The survey showed that of the total number of registered vehicles in Indore, 85.2% are private, while only 8.9% are public vehicles, including public transport, auto, iBus, and City Bus. In addition, 3.5% are goods vehicles.

This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Hindi by NaiDunia on December 14, 2022. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Air pollution can lead to adverse health effects for women exposed to vehicular or industrial fumes in their workplace / Credit: Raju Panwar for NaiDunia.