Air Pollution & Heat Impacts Study during India’s Epic Heatwave

Ahmedabad traffic police officer with temperature data logger.
Credit: Photo by Nehmat Kaur.

Guest Blog by Nehmat Kaur, NRDC India Representative and Abhiyant Tiwari, Indian Institute of Public Health, Gandhinagar

Odds are that 2016 is already set to be yet another “hottest year on record”. This week Ahmedabad, in Western India, broke a hundred year record with reported maximum temperatures of 46.9°C (116.4°F). The United States White House has designated this week, as “Extreme Heat Week”. The dangerous health effects of globally rising temperatures and climate change are becoming very real.

Closer to home in India, cities have been feeling the heat since early summer. The Indian Meteorological Department has warned of extreme heat wave conditions in central and north India. Taking action, 3 regions in 10 cities, covering 10 million people, are preparing and responding to sweltering temperatures and related health impacts, including heat stroke and death. Nine Indian cities, including Bhubaneswar and Nagpur have joined Ahmedabad, in releasing Heat Action Plans – early warning systems focus on increased community action, interagency coordination and capacity building among medical professionals.  

This year, NRDC and partners, the Indian Institute of Public Health, Gandhinagar (IIPHG), University of Washington and others are working with the city to further strengthen the evidence based case for an occupationally vulnerable group – traffic officers – who stand on busy traffic junctions daily and are exposed to extreme heat and air pollution in a harsh working environment.

In 2013, Ahmedabad became the first South Asian city to implement the early warning system based on a comprehensive system of forecasting, building community awareness and capacity-building of the medical infrastructure in the city. Led by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, this effort was supported by knowledge partners, NRDC, IIPH G, Climate Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) and other national and international scientific organizations. Building on the science that formed the basis for the Heat Action Plan, public health researchers from IIPH G and NRDC, together with key experts are now collaborating with the city’s traffic police department to strengthen the understanding on occupational health effects of extreme heat. The results of this first-of-its-kind analysis will strengthen interventions that help protect groups that are especially vulnerable to extreme heat, such as those who work outdoors.

Outdoor workers, for example street vendors, traffic policemen, construction and agricultural workers, who perform physical labor outdoors, during the hottest hours of the day, are particularly vulnerable to the health impacts of extreme heat, according to research conducted by NRDC-IIPH-G. The combination of physical work and heat exposure makes them particularly susceptible. During the heat season in 2016 i.e., April to June 2016, IIPH-G and NRDC are focusing research on one such group of outdoor workers – the traffic police. Traffic policemen are responsible for managing busy roads and heavy traffic on a daily basis in Ahmedabad. The nature of traffic police work exposes them to heat, pollutants and noise from the vehicles that they manage and traffic policement have known to have suffered the deadly consequences of prolonged heat exposure in previous years. On duty mortality and morbidity indicate that traffic junctions are high heat stress locations, especially during the peak of summer in Ahmedabad.

Heat Study

A pilot study on Ahmedabad traffic police was carried out at the end of the summer in 2015. The pilot study served as the backdrop against which this year’s cohort study is being conducted, to get a sense of the study setting and preliminary results. As part of this year’s two month research, efforts to quantify the effects of occupational heat exposure on traffic police workers during the summer months is underway. During the last few weeks, IIPH-G research assistants Dr. Priya Dutta and Dr. Abhiyant Tiwari, Sathish LM and NRDC’s Nehmat Kaur have conducted field visits to distribute temperature measuring data loggers at close to forty traffic junctions in the city of Ahmedabad.

The traffic officer in the study will wear the data loggers during their hours of duty, for a total of two months. Together with a periodic survey on health indicators, this research will allow the teams to study the relation between personal occupational heat exposure during the participants’ work hours and the health indicators observed in the participants. These findings could inform recommendations for practical interventions to better protect them from extreme conditions next heat season and will support the department to better understand the effects of environmental and occupational stresses on the traffic policemen working in extreme conditions.

Air Pollution Study

In a separate, but related occupational health study, the NRDC – IIPH research team is collaborating with the Sri Ramachandra University (SRU) to conduct an air pollution exposure study with the traffic police. Traffic policemen spend a significant amount of time manning heavy traffic junctions and are forced to breathe air filled with pollutants including particulate matter (PM) and carbon monoxide (CO). Spending long hours can lead to chronic respiratory and cardiovascular health effects. Similar to heat, traffic policemen are particularly vulnerable to the adverse health effects of air pollution due to the demanding nature of their occupation. To understand the nature and health impact of air pollution exposure in traffic policemen, the study aims to measure personal PM and CO exposure levels for twelve traffic policemen in a continuous 48 hour period. This includes their work settings, outdoors as well as their home environments, while not at work.

The study was kicked off, earlier this week, with the NRDC-IIPHG-SRU teams distributing personal monitors to traffic policemen in four locations across Ahmedabad. These personal monitors were fitted into backpacks, making them convenient for the study participants to wear, while on duty. The team administered health and exposure based questionnaires to get a deeper understanding of the settings in which the traffic police live and operate and establish a baseline.

Ahmedabad Traffic Officer with backpack air monitor.
Credit: Photo by Nehmat Kaur.

The aim of these scientific studies is to quantify the level of occupational and environemental stressors that this vulnerable group of traffic policemen serving the city are exposed to and build the evidence for policy action. Based on the results and findings of these studies, the city of Ahmedabad can take concrete measures that will help mitigate and alleviate dangerous occupational stressors such as heat and air pollution. The traffic police department is taking significant measures and has been active in efforts to improve the health and working conditions of the policemen. For example, traffic policemen have been provided with special cooling jackets during the heat wave period, to help them stay cool and healthy. The department has also participated in a heat sensitization workshop on heat-related precautions and care, installed drinking water and toilet facilities at various sites around the city, and other administrative measures which are a part of the city’s Heat Action Plan.

Heat waves are becoming even more frequent and severe due to climate change. Ahmedabad is reeling under extreme temperatures. It has also been reported as one of India’s top most polluted cities. Such conditions can make it difficult for the human body to cope, especially for groups such as the traffic police that are particularly vulnerable. Policy decisions based on supportive evidence are necessary to safeguard such vulnerable groups from extreme health effects of rising temperatures and rising pollution.

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