Researchers and pulmonologists around the world may be crying themselves hoarse about how cooking on open ‘wood’ fires could cause asthma and wheezing; but for most of the city’s ‘homeless’ populace — asthma is a word that’s as alien as schizophrenia.
Take Ramanammal (38), a construction worker and mother of three. Currently staying at their site in Maduravoyal, she is happily stirring a pot of rice in a beaten-up aluminium bowl, over a flame fuelled by discarded wood bits. “Asthu-enna (what)?...” she asks when we point out that her kids can get wheezing, “I don’t know about the smoke, but my mother has always told me that cooking over a natural fire makes food very nutritious,” she adds knowingly. Though her children, aged seven, five and four don’t look like they’re particularly sick, they certainly look like they’re susceptible to the respiratory condition.
Going by a recent article published in the Lancet respiratory medicine journal, there is a distinct link between open cooking and development of asthma in kids, all over the world. Sadly, not too many people who are compelled to cook over open fires in Chennai - mostly labourers, slum dwellers and homeless pavement dwellers - have any idea that they’re exposing themselves and their children to asthma. Incidentally, social activist Vanessa Peter estimates that there are at least 60,000 homeless people in the city, almost all of whom use open fires to cook their meals.
The ignorance can be appalling at times: Mary and her husband Augustine Selvaraj, who is a ragpicker near Central Station said that they used skin cream when we asked them if they knew about asthma, “Asthma-va? No problem sir,” says Augustine confidently, “We use this cream to keep ourselves healthy,” he adds, extending an antiseptic cream given to him by social workers - who heard that he was in the garbage business. Their two children who were coughing quite severely as they waited for their meal around the fire, seemed to be a warning sign — but their parents had no idea that there was an issue.
Why this is so very risky is because a high number of asthmatics remain undiagnosed till they have a serious attack. Earlier, Dr Raj Singh, a pulmonologist at Apollo Hospitals had said that a ‘considerable’ number of people did not know they had asthma for years, till it reached a boiling point.
The upside is that, a few of them like Krishnakumari (27), despite lacking the will-power to put their children in free government schools, agreed to seek medical advice when the asthma risk was mentioned.
“I will take them to the dharma (free) hospital. We will have to wait for a long time, but at least I know my child will not suffer for my mistakes,” she sighed wretchedly, promising to visit the Egmore Children’s Hospital the next day.