Delhi's Air Pollution Would Qualify As A Public Health Emergency

On November 27th, one of the US Embassy's pollution-monitoring stations in New Delhi recorded a chart-breaking reading of 999 on its custom-developed Air Quality Index. To put that in perspective, any reading above 150 is considered unhealthy, with the range 351-500 classified as 'hazardous'.

The agency's definition of hazardous specifies: 'Serious aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly; serious risk of respiratory effects in general population.'

The latest readings across air quality monitors such as the Indian Institute Of Tropical Meteorology-run SAFAR or the government's central pollution control body unanimously point to the harmful and according to some commentators, enervating, air of Delhi.

While it is possible to immediately blame construction, cars and industries for Delhi's toxic air, the city's geography has a disproportionate role to play. As a landlocked megacity, Delhi has fewer avenues for flushing polluted air out of the city. Coastal cities such as Mumbai have a shot at 'replacing' polluted air with relatively unpolluted sea breezes, whereas Delhi's surrounding regions are sometimes even more polluted than the city. For example, most of the brick kilns used for making bricks are not located in the city, but in predominantly upwind surrounding industrial areas.

Other contributors to pollution are low-quality fuels such as raw wood, agricultural and plastic waste in industrial settings, cow dung for cooking stoves and widespread use of diesel generators due to unreliable infrastructure. These sources release fine particle pollutants such as PM10 and PM 2.5. These are fine smidgens of practically-indestructible matter, able to lodge themselves in the lung and impede breathing as well as contribute to cancer.

The impetus on economic growth necessitates more buildings and roads and thereby, more dust. However, traditional agricultural practices too are to blame. October and November are the months when farmers in Punjab raze the remnant stubble of their paddy fields to prepare them for the winter sowing.

The ensuing smoke, which has been captured by satellite imagery over the years, then wafts to Delhi and significantly increases the levels of toxic particulate matter.
paddy fires
The state governments of Punjab and Haryana have recognized the problem and tried to impose fines but have run into the familiar difficulty of having too few people to exercise these rules. It's hard to convince farmers, most of whom are extremely poor, to eschew a traditional, cheap, quick method to prepare their fields just so that they and their neighbours can breathe easier in Delhi.

Coupled with Delhi's densely packed architecture, and varying building heights, the 'breathability' of the city is also inhibited by its weather conditions. The city's decreasing temperature (attributed to the effects of pollution) draws from outside, polluted air into the city centre, while windy, dusty conditions during summer exacerbate this problem.

The pollution monitoring data also shows it is particulate matter that registers a massive rise, rather than effluents such as carbon monoxide or NOx emissions, which are more strongly associated with vehicular and industrial pollution. This makes it hard to separate the relative influence of one source of pollution from the other on human health, which allows various stakeholders--government to car manufacturers--to blame each other for the enormity of the problem.
Ultimately, there are real sufferers. Children, the asthmatic and even the healthy, who say that they are experiencing reduced lung function.

The WHO has ranked outdoor air pollution among the top killers in India. Air pollution has also made India, the country with the highest rate of deaths caused by chronic respiratory diseases anywhere in the world. Bad air is also blamed for the growth in stress levels as well as non-communicable diseases, such as high blood pressure. The annual cost of the environmental damage due to outdoor and indoor air pollution has been estimated to be Rs 1,10,000 crore and Rs 87,000 crore respectively.

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