ast week, Arundhuti shared her upsetting encounter with pollution; like her, I too wanted to escape to the sea and meet Nature. But, loose strings of some questions kept roaming the depths of my mind – What have we done to our environment that our children are finding it difficult to breathe here? Is the skyline darker today than it was yesterday? How far have we come that we forgot our way back home?
With these questions and some more in mind, I found myself at Dr. M.L. Mall’s practice chamber at Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Road, on a wintry Kolkata evening. The veteran pediatrician enlightened me on the various faces of pollution that is threatening our existence today. On my panicked question on how to escape and protect our children from these evils, the seasoned expert shared with me an open secret which is as old as time. I am penning down my conversation with Dr. Mall below. Dig in and read on…
Wellness Buddy: Good evening Doctor! I am a Wellness Buddy and I have come with a few questions in mind. Last week in our Wellness Buddy Story Series, a young girl shared with us, how disturbed she felt when she returned to the polluted city air from a sea beach trip.
Doctor, pollution is a toxic buzzword today. Children are such innocent beings; how should parents protect their children from the grasps of pollution?
Dr. M.L. Mall: It’s actually very simple! They (families) should live in an environment which is less polluted; modern complexes have the provisions for lots of open spaces. Simultaneously, pollutants from other sources like vehicles are much less pronounced in the open areas than, say, in the heart of the city.
WB: Doctor, we often see children playing in dirt and dust in playgrounds and parks. What are the preventive measures that can be taken in these cases?
Dr. Mall: I personally don’t feel that dust and dirt are pollutants. The biggest pollutants are the vehicle pollutants. Dust was there all our lives…throughout all generations. So, dust cannot be blamed for pollution!
WB: Agreed, Doctor! However, dust allergy is a condition found in many children these days. In this respect, winter clothes like sweater and jackets which accumulates a lot of dust can be highly troublesome. How can parents possibly equip their children to fight these evils?
Dr. Mall: The key is keeping the clothes as clean as possible. There is simply no other way! Artificial means to purify air do not help much at all.
WB: Doctor, what would you advise for kids’ undergarments? Which cloth material provides the best form of protection from dust allergy?
Dr. Mall: Cotton is the least allergen of all. The worst allergens are woolen garments, especially which are derived from animal fur.
WB: Coming to the point on how sensitive infants are to their environment, Doctor, is there anything that lactating mothers can do while breastfeeding, to keep the baby safe from pollutants?
Dr. Mall: Pollution is everywhere. Today, it’s impossible to find a place which is absolutely free from pollution. So, what can be done to protect the baby is 200% breastfeeding until the age of 1-year if not more…not a drop of any other milk, not even a drop of water.
WB: Coming back to the topic of food pollution, a lot of news is reported against the use of adulterants in milk. Given the undeniable goodness of the milk, are there any other, if not better, substitutes?
Dr. Mall: Mother’s milk is the only milk that the baby should have. All other milk types – pure or adulterated is bad for the body. These are the sources from where you get most food contamination, whether it is processed cow milk or the ones artificially made. The same holds true for all canned food as well.
WB: Doctor, similarly, there is always this ongoing debate about what form of water is best-suited for consumption for children? Is it the traditional boiled water or the more recent RO/EV trends that we see these days?
Dr. Mall: Boiled water is good as far as intake of water-based germ is concerned. But when you boil water, you lose a lot of good minerals in the process. In this sense, the new trend of RO/EV/UV water purifiers is gaining popularity, because they provide the necessary minerals in germ-free water.
WB: Coming to the extent to which water is contaminated these days, dirty stagnant water is the breeding place for germs and a host of diseases including dengue. How should we safeguard our children from these evils?
Dr. Mall: Now, this is a completely man-made issue! Parents should religiously check that there is no stagnant water in front of their homes and ensure the same for their kids’ overall surrounding – including schools and playgrounds.
WB: They say home is the safest place of all. However, even here chemicals used in everyday household objects like false ceilings, furniture, wall paint, etc. can paint a serious picture of pollution. What are our ways around this, Doctor?
Dr. Mall: Well, don’t decorate your home with furniture that can pose a threat to your kids’ health. Go back to how painting was done back in the older days, i.e., with chuna-mitti.
The problem with modern living is that everyone wants everything to done in the blink of an eye. They want their wall paints drying quickly; these paints require multiple chemicals to be produced. In olden days, people used to wait around for a number of days before shifting in a house that was newly painted, because the paint used to take more time to dry. These paints had fewer chemicals.
Very often, what parents keep on forgetting is that they themselves are exposing their children to pollution inside their own homes – when they are using deodorants, body sprays, room fresheners, car fresheners. I have seen multiple cases where if you spray deodorant in one corner of this room (the Doctor and I were sitting in the doctor’s spacious chamber), the child standing on the far end reacts to it and start having asthma troubles.
WB: Even in schools, which is considered to the second home for the children, often toilets are not reasonably neat and clean. How should parents equip their children to shield against these issues?
Dr. Mall: Schooling is quite expensive these days; parents should regularly talk with the school authorities to ensure that the school toilets are clean and hygienic. They should make sure that there is a parents’ committee in place to look over the cleanliness maintained in school washrooms and other school provisions that the children are using.
WB: Doctor, nowadays we often see children – ranging from small babies to teens hooked on to smart gadgets, be it phones, tablets or computers. What is the impact of such exposure on children?
Dr. Mall: This is very, very harmful to the kids’ health! The children get addicted to these exposures. What the general public is unaware of, but as doctors, we face so commonly these days is the ill-effects of batteries used in smart technology. Those batteries are lithium batteries which are highly poisonous. Smaller the battery to make it powerful, the more chemicals it contains. Now, if this goes to the stomach, one has to get their stomach washed out to get rid of the battery immediately; otherwise, they will produce ulcers in their stomach. Emergency wards of most hospitals today are handling cases of children accidentally consuming lithium batteries, on a regular basis. Unfortunately, the smaller the babies, the more are these cases reported. Phone gir ke battery nikal gaya…and it looks like a chocolate, so the babies put it in their mouths.
WB: It is another observed trend that people often consume antibiotics as an easy and quick medical treatment. How appropriate is this practice?
Dr. Mall: The first rule that I set for all my patients is that unless you have a fever for three days, don’t come to me! All modern diseases are resulting from the short-cuts that we are using in our daily lives. Like, I gave you the wall paint example, we want a quick solution to everything today.
WB: In a similar context Doctor, hand sanitisers are also trending these days? How safe are they actually?
Dr. Mall: In older days, we used to wash our hands with plain water, and it was as good as washing our hands with soap. This is scientifically proved. Hand sanitisers are just sales gimmicks; they are safe only on television. The sanitisers are killing the germs on your hands, but are putting chemicals inside your body. All food items are contaminated these days! There is no escaping that…but, when you are using hand sanitisers to clean your hands before eating, it is causing double the harm – you are consuming the contaminated food and also the chemicals from the sanitisers.
WB: Speaking of bad, polluted food, Doctor what is your take on today’s age of childhood obesity?
Dr. Mall: Oh my God! You have touched my raw nerve! Childhood obesity is a severely bad thing these days!
WB: Absolutely, doctor! We often see small children eating lots of junk food, because these are so easily accessible these days.
Dr. Mall: Obesity is not only because of junk food. The biggest cause of obesity is nuclear family. Being a nuclear family, you want to satisfy all the whims of your child; the biggest whim is that you give him/her whatever s/he wants to eat. The children sit all day in front of the television or play video games…no exercise…as much food as he/she wants...the result is obesity!
WB: Obesity, of course, have far-reaching effects in a person’s life…
Dr. Mall: These days, children are falling prey to so many obesity-related diseases…diseases which were diagnosed only in middle-aged adults, a few years back are now percolating in children! They are entering adulthood with these diseases. Children as small as five-six years’ old are catching on to these diseases. These are all lifestyle diseases, and they have increased ten-fold over the last twenty years.
WB: This is really alarming! But Doctor, today’s vegetables, fruits, cereals and food grains are also contaminated with pesticides and insecticides…
Dr. Mall: As far pesticides and insecticides are concerned, you can wash the raw food items thoroughly with water and as frequently as possible, peel the skin off fruits and vegetables and then eat them. Previously, it was the trend to eat fruits with the skin on, but now the trend is opposite. To minimize the effect of the poisonous pesticides and insecticides, peel the skin off! I advise everyone to practice this.
You are talking about pesticides and insecticides, but you are forgetting about preservatives! They are the most dangerous things. Preservatives are put in the (food) packets and mixed in the food! How do you get rid of that?
WB: So Doctor from this perspective, is having restaurant food at all okay for the kids?
Dr. Mall: It is a big no-no from my side! Not only food, you are forgetting about aerated water – the cold drinks as well.
WB: Often, parents do not have an option other than tagging their kids along with them to parties and social gatherings where there is a lot of loud music, outside food etc. How harmful is this for the kids’ health?
Dr. Mall: Now, this is the biggest problem of all – nuclear families!
Exposure to loud music is very harmful to kids’ health. Parents keep telling me, “Kya karenge? Jana toh padhta hain!”, then I tell them to have only warm food…don’t eat or drink anything that is not warm; don’t eat anything that has any colour – take plain rice, don’t take biryani; take rasgulla, don’t take rajbhog; take plain soda-based cold drink, don’t take cold drink with added colours….this way, you’ll be having lesser of the two evils.
WB: Doctor, how necessary are health drinks for a child’s growth and development?
Dr. Mall: If the children eat good and complete meals at home, health drinks are not necessary. Unfortunately, complete meals are rare these days, and children being fussy and being spoilt by us, they have to go for health drinks. These drinks compensate for the lack of nutrient intake from meals.
WB: Well, words are failing me to describe how truly enlightening this was, Doctor! Thank you for sharing your precious time and knowledge with us!
Just on a final note, if you would kindly share with our readers some words of wisdom to help them win the war against evils like air & food pollution…
Dr. Mall: Go back to Nature! Come back to your home. Have organic food; it’ll help you to fight off the ill-effects of artificial, packaged food full of adulterants. Forget about this present, fast-paced lifestyle which you have adopted in terms of food and the city air around you.
Another big issue today is that children ride (in) autos, buses, and cars to schools which results in pollution, and then we complain how polluted the air is! Parents, ask your children to walk/cycle to school. The kid will stay fit and healthy, and if you accompany them, then you will also stay so.
So, this was my, the Wellness Buddy’s time with the learned Doctor. I gathered a lot of information from the veteran whose words were rich with years of practice and experience. Thinking about our fast lifestyle and its dangerous outcomes, I left the doctor’s chamber with a heavy heart. However, not all hope is lost on us; we just have to pack our times and return to the natural world. With this sense of purpose in mind, next week, let’s learn the tale of a city girl and her family’s shared experiences on both sides of the food court – the good and the bad!