Millennium Post

Who cares for Delhi’s air?

Delhi has very high concentrations of respirable particulate matter (PM) that cross the safety limits prescribed by the World Health Organization. While for some reason, the highest PM is routinely reported from some areas in the east of the city, no place is safe in the Delhi.

A rather startling fact is that indoor air is generally 10 times more polluted than the outdoor air. So, where do we go? India has 13 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, Delhi being on the top of all.

The presence of PM 2.5 in Delhi’s air is an average of 153 micrograms per cubic metre against a safe national level of 60 micrograms per cubic metre and Ozone is 2/3 times the normal. More than 50 per cent of Delhi’s vehicles run on diesel. We have dirty diesel with high sulphur content and this does not allow for diesel particulate filters (DPF) to be installed on the vehicles to reduce NOx (Nitrogen Oxide) and PM 2.5 levels to acceptable ones.

This is the main cause of the problem. We need EURO VI compliant vehicles and diesel with less than 10 ppm of Sulphur so that the DPF filters can work. The technology and capacity exist for such fuel and vehicles. It is a question of our will and priority to solve the problem.

Here are a few other reasons for the excessive pollution post-Diwali till Holi:
Burning of paddy husk in Punjab towards end-October each year is the cause for beginning of the severity of pollution in Delhi. It is there throughout the year.

This is followed by Diwali celebrations with fireworks that cause pollution. Perhaps, a public display of fireworks at various locations in Delhi would be a substitute. On Diwali night of 2014, the PM2.5 was in excess of 8,000 micrograms per cubic metre. Let’s see the reading for 2015?

Fireworks are fully loaded with harmful chemicals: 75 per cent potassium nitrate, 15 per cent carbon, and 10 per cent sulphur, that belch out toxic gases like NOx, Sulphur Dioxide (SO2), Carbon Dioxide (CO2), Carbon Monoxide (CO), Manganese, and even Cadmium, besides Green House Gases (GHGs) which irritate the soft and delicate airways of the lungs and worsen the conditions of people with respiratory symptoms like Asthma, COPD, IPF, and Bronchitis.

When winter arrives, typically after Diwali, the temperature gradually starts dropping. Burning of any waste - tyres, paper, wood - by security guards to keep them warm during a very cold night in Delhi - causes avoidable smoke and pollution.

These are among the provoking factors for childhood bronchial asthma, particularly between 6 and 12 years of age, and it has now been established that 26 per cent of people, even without any prior history of respiratory ailments, develop symptoms of coughing, wheezing and breathlessness, especially during Diwali time.

The pollution dons a spectrum of health impacts for all, like wheezing; eye, nose, and throat irritation; Asthma; disorder in the functionality of central nervous system; headache; cancer, and more.

This toxic air has effects on pregnant women and children’s health. It restricts the growth of the lungs and brain of the embryo. This results in slowing down the brain’s processing speed and behavioural problems.

In fact environmental exposures can cause infants to be born prematurely, or of low weight, or born with certain birth defects. These babies are far more likely to die during infancy, and the survivors are prone to high risks of brain, respiratory, and digestive problems in early life.

The science behind this is: human brain cells are highly sensitive to the availability of oxygen as compared with other cells of the body. If deprived, they quickly begin to die. The major threats are very high PM 2.5 and Ozone levels in Delhi’s air.

When there is a temperature inversion and warm air is unable to rise, warmer air starts moving horizontally towards the cooler zone where there are trees. Along with that warm air float the PM 2.5 and Ozone, further contaminating the air of these green patches.

One good example is the Lodi Gardens, a green public park spread over eighty acres, in Lutyens Delhi. It has over 5,400 trees, which attract migratory birds during winters. The garden, a botanist’s treasure trove, has the National Bonsai Park located in it. Despite it looking green and, hence, misleadingly feeling good, the high count of PM2.5 and Ozone are really shocking, especially in the morning, when most people like to go for a walk in the Lodi Gardens. The situation improves in the afternoon when it becomes warmer.

People rely on greener areas for morning walks, jogging, and physical exercises, and here it is what they are breathing. But Delhi’s air is carcinogenic, and air pollution is the silent and invisible killer. It is like being continuously exposed to invisible x-rays! Out of sight is out of mind.

Needless to say, you will find hospitals and healthcare centres filled with patients having health problems pertaining to air pollution between Diwali this month and Holi in March.

Who is at the highest risk? The staff of Delhi Police, Delhi Jal Board, bus drivers, slum dwellers, petrol pump attendants, electricians, NDMC, PWD, DDA, and MCD workers, cleaning staff, and the citizens travelling in buses and autos.

It is the bottom of the pyramid in Delhi that is affected most. But who cares for them? These are the people who do not have the luxury of quitting their job and leaving Delhi. Then what can they do? They need to breathe. It is their right.  

(Kamal Meattle, chief executive of Paharpur Business Centre, is also a trustee of The Climate Reality Project - a foundation set up by Nobel Laureate Al Gore - in India. The views expressed are strictly personal)
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