That elusive breath of clean air

That elusive breath of clean air

Blanket of threat: Vehicles drive through heavy smog in Delhi. REUTERS

If someone was to mark the cities of the world with the dirtiest air, most of India would be covered in grey. From Gurugram, Ghaziabad, Faridabad, to Patna, Lucknow and Delhi, no city in India, particularly in the Indo-Gangetic plains, is entirely free from the shadow of the dense cloud of death hovering over it.

And even as nine out of 10 people in the world breathe polluted air and an estimated 7 million premature deaths worldwide are a result of this silent killer, air pollution still seems to garner most attention as a school essay topic than a real planetary threat and a public health emergency.

The United Nations, in an effort to address this apathy, aims to celebrate World Environment Day this year to raise awareness against air pollution and to bring together individuals and governments to take definitive measures to curb it.

In March this year, a data compiled by IQAir Air Visual, in collaboration with Greenpeace Southeast Asia, found that seven out of 10 most polluted cities in the world are in India, with Gurugram topping the chart. Delhi was 11th followed by five more Indian cities. The top 50 cities worldwide with the dirtiest air were from India, China, Pakistan and Bangladesh pointing definitively at the condition of the atmosphere over Southeast Asia.

An additional unsettling fact is that the poorest are most affected by the air pollution because of the cramped informal settlements they live in and overexposure to indoor as well as outdoor pollutants. So, not only are India and its neighbouring nations causing the most air pollution in the world, but they are also putting a maximum number of individuals in danger of air pollution-related threats.

Toxic fumes

Any PM2.5 measure above 50 is considered unhealthy. The average PM2.5 level in New Delhi last year saw a marginal improvement, measuring about 172 compared with 174 in 2017. Mumbai, recorded an average PM 2.5 level of about 147 last year, up from 126 in 2017.

While you are working, cooking, labouring in the farms or riding your bike to work, these particles could reach the lungs, bloodstreams and heart with constant exposure leading to coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, watery eyes, and aggravated asthma. The long- term effects include lung cancer, heart conditions, skin irritation, stroke, reproductive organ malfunctioning and, under extreme circumstances, death.

That the air we breathe is becoming more dangerous than alcohol abuse or malnutrition is a hard thing to fathom but studies are proving it to be true and that more and more people are being affected by foul air worldwide. The most vulnerable are children with 11,000 new cases of child asthma registered every day due to inhalation of vehicular emissions like nitrogen dioxide. And 50% of childhood pneumonia deaths are due to air pollution.

“The second most at-risk group are women, because of their constant contact with household emissions. A lot of households in South Asia rely on solid fuels, sometimes biomass, often coal, for their cooking and heating,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, a senior analyst for Greenpeace’s Global Air Pollution Unit.

Apart from public health concerns, scientists have also noticed a puzzling climate trend in recent decades. Some of the monsoons, including India’s annual rains, have been weakening over time and surprisingly, air pollution seems to be the culprit.

In a study published in Geophysical Research Letters last month, Chinese scientists deciphered that aerosols — tiny pollution particles in the atmosphere — have a cooling effect reversing the warming mechanism of the land that leads to monsoons. In the last 80 years, researchers claim the disruptive rains are because of not just climate change but also air pollutants like sulphate particles.

Another revelation is how bees, the number one pollinators, are becoming less effective in their pollination roles because of air pollutants. Bees rely on their sense of smell to identify different flowers. But air pollution can mask scent molecules from plants, leading to bees foraging for longer and becoming less effective pollinators.

Purifying our air

The beginning of this year finally saw the Union government taking a stand, by minting the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) which aims to cut concentrations of PM2.5 and PM10 (larger particulate matter) between 20-30% by 2024. While the timing of the initiative was questioned in an election year, setting a reduction target is a step forward.

Environmentalists worry though that the $91 million funding for the initiative might be too little for two years. There is also the worry of no sector-specific implementation targets or a more ‘zero tolerance’ like policy that China has adopted since 2018, bringing its emission levels to 13% lower than recorded in previous years.

The major sources of air pollution in India currently are household, industry and transport. And while common notion suggests that the emission flux between urban areas and villages is only one way, a study by Stockholm University this year found that New Delhi’s major source of emission, especially during the fall and winter months when the entire NCR area seems to be covered in a blanket of smog, is largely a result of post-harvest burning of crop residue — so high that it rivals the fossil fuel emissions during summer months.

Any measure taken to reduce the impurity of air has to be thus based on curbing the emission of known culprits like transport and industry but also those unique to India like crop residue burns.

Implementation issues

The Union government’s initiative to provide Indian women with funds to buy natural gas stoves is underway. However, studies show that almost all beneficiaries continue to use traditional biomass fuels like cow-dung and firewood because of habits, cultural beliefs and, most importantly, the expense incurred to maintain the gas stoves.

In some cases, the distance of oil marketing companies from the remote villages has not allowed them to reach the target population and in other cases, the tiny homes do not have enough ventilation to support such a stove even if installed, continuing to cause health and environmental pollution risks. Experts believe the scheme needs to evolve, taking into account affordability and accessibility, and provide a basket of fuels like electricity and solar stoves too rather than LPG alone. 

The United Nations also suggests shifting to renewable energy that could save up to 150 million lives by the end of the century. India’s solar mega-project, which aims at expanding the country’s solar capacity from the current 3 megawatts (MW) to a reported 20 gigawatts (GW) by 2020 and 200 GW by 2050, forms the centrepiece of a National Climate Change Strategy.

The world we know is changing dramatically as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels reached an alarmingly high level of 415 ppm this May, which has never happened in the last 8,00,000 years. Anything exhaled into the atmosphere today is, therefore, tipping an already overflowing cup of toxicity and we are all responsible.

The quality of air thus is as much a lifestyle choice for us as individuals as it is for policymakers. The cleansing has to start with us.