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You are breathing poison

India is once again heading into the worst time of the year for air pollution, a season when the country's notoriously poor air quality becomes even more toxic. According to CPCB's AQI bulletin that covers around 70 cities, almost all cities from North to South indicated deteriorating air quality.

New Delhi: Post Diwali, Delhi hospitals have seen a huge surge in the number of respiratory patients. Why not? After all, Delhi has got a new tag of world’s most polluted city and the air quality will continue to remain in “severe” category for the next few days, as people across Delhi and NCR burst firecrackers on Wednesday leaving the capital shrouded in toxic smog. On Diwali, air quality worsened through the day and went off the charts by the evening as the city recorded its worst pollution of the year the morning after the festival.

Delhi’s air quality stands as worst in the world

With different air quality monitors showing varied readings, it is certain that Delhi’s air quality stands worst in the world. Several Air Quality Index (AQI) monitors maxed out on Wednesday with a reading of 999. That’s almost double the upper limit of what is considered hazardous.

The Supreme Court had restricted fireworks to two hours 8 to 10 pm and ordered use of cleaner green firecrackers. But Delhi failed spectacularly in preventing the air quality from spiralling into the most dangerous category. People also complained that there were no “green” fireworks available.

According to AirVisual’s global rankings, Delhi was ranked the most polluted city in the world on Thursday. Lahore in Pakistan was at second place with AQI at 273. By comparison, New York had readings of just 29 on Wednesday.

2018 levels at par with 2016

Data released by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) shows that 2018 has been on par and in some instances worse than in 2016, when the city residents were exposed to very high levels of particulate matter.

According to experts, the volume of PM2.5 in the air was so dense that it was like smoking 20 cigarettes in a day. The situation remained the same in other megacities like Mumbai and Kolkata where particulate pollution surged dramatically during and after Diwali celebrations.

The festival falling almost a month later than last year is cited as a reason for different met conditions which play a significant role in dispersing air.

“It is very important to take into account that the first week of November this year was, in fact, better than last year. Diwali days always lead to a spike in pollution levels but comparing one Diwali to the next does not offer a clear picture since meteorological conditions do play a significant role,” said a senior CPCB scientist. Overall, there were more moderate days this year, he said.

Diwali was on October 19 last year, when the wind direction was east and southeast. This year the direction was north-west, which might have added pollutant load from stubble burning, the CPCB official said.

The culprits: PM2.5 and PM10

According to data by the Centre-run SAFAR (System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research),the AQI in Delhi jumped to 642 on Diwali which was partly a result of smoke from firecrackers. The contribution of PM2.5 and PM10 had increased from 50 to 70 per cent on Wednesday night, indicating an increased share of locally generated firecracker emissions, SAFAR said.On Thursday, the PM2.5 (particles in the air with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres) level was recorded at 492 ug/m3, more than eight times the permissible limit.

The PM10 level was recorded at six times the permissible limit at 618 ug/m3, according to the SAFAR. India’s official permissible PM2.5 limit is 60 ug/m3, while that of PM10 is 100 ug/m3. These particles penetrate deep into the lungs and can lead to a variety of health problems ranging from asthma attacks, high blood pressure, and, over the long-term, cancer.

‘Pollution kills’

“Pollution kills. Every year thousands die of pollution-related ailments in Delhi and NCR during the winters when the air is extremely foul. Pollution is a silent killer; it does not directly kill anyone but aggravates existing diseases,” said Dr Randeep Guleria, director of All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS).

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of WHO, called air pollution a ‘silent public health emergency’. Dr Tedros, in an article in the Guardian, noted that over seven million people die as a result of air pollution every year, while nine out of 10 people worldwide breathe toxic air. Air pollution affects human health, leading to a number of health conditions such as cardiovascular damage, respiratory diseases, nervous system damage, and even premature death.

The entry of heavy and medium goods vehicles into the national capital has been banned for three days beginning 11 pm on Thursday night as Delhi’s air quality worsened to the “severe-plus emergency” category following rampant bursting of crackers on Diwali.

Avg Data from 11 Delhi CPCB stations on Diwali (in ug/m3)

Carbon Monoxide (CO)

2018: 0.8 – 4.0
2017: 3.0 – 3.7

Oxides of Nitrogen (NO2)

2018: 29 – 83
2017: 43 – 173

Sulphur dioxide (SO2)

2018: 15 – 81
2017: 20 – 89

PM10

2018: 167 – 1859
2017: 331 – 951

PM2.5

2018: 69 – 1560
2017: 154 – 440

Noise pollution

2018: 64.4 dB to 74.0 dB
2017: 61.4 dB to 68.0 dB

Figures show the lowest and highest levels recorded

Source: Central Pollution Control Board

Depressing statistics point to an even bleaker time ahead

According to a recently released World Health Organisation’s database’s ranking of particulate pollution in cities, 11 of the 12 cities with the highest pollution levels are located in India. Kanpur tops the list with a yearly average of 319 micrograms per cubic meter of PM2.5, followed by Faridabad, Varanasi, Gaya, Patna and Delhi. Bamenda, Cameroon, is the one city outside of India in the top 12.

In terms of comparing PM10 measurements of the world’s largest cities, New Delhi comes in with an annual average of 292, ahead of Cairo (284), Dhaka (147), Mumbai (104), and Beijing (92).

Smog capitals

Delhi NCR, India’s capital region, is notorious for choking air. The city faced a major air quality crisis around this time last year as off-the-charts pollution levels led to cancellation of flights, caused road accidents, closed schools, and sparked several protests. One minister described Delhi as a “gas chamber,” and the city declared a public health emergency. The day after Diwali this year, the city of over 18 million awoke to a shroud of toxic haze caused by construction activity and emissions from vehicles and further exacerbated by fireworks burst the night before. The air pollution soared to 20 times safe levels.

In Chennai, on the southern coast, average annual concentrations of PM 2.5 have quadrupled since 2015 to 105 micrograms per cubic meter from 24, according to data from the first 10 months of each year gathered by the United States Consulate. Hundreds of miles north, in Kolkata, the numbers nearly doubled to 78 micrograms per cubic meter from 40 during the same period.

The air in Mumbai, India’s seaside commercial capital with some 20 million residents, is also getting worse. With two smoggy months still to go, average annual concentrations of PM2.5 shot up nearly 50 per cent in the last three years.

Pollution and child mortality rates

India tops the list of countries with the highest mortality of children below the age of five owing to their exposure to ambient air pollution of PM2.5, a WHO report noted. In 2016, over 1 lakh children under the age of five died in India because of their exposure to PM2.5, the report said.

Earlier this year, India was ranked 177 among 180 countries on the Environmental Performance Index 2018. In the categories of environmental health and air quality, India performed poorly. The country was at the bottom of the former list and third from last in the latter list no mean feat!

Politics is a major cause of India’s air pollution

A major cause of India’s pollution problem is politics. Kirk Smith, a professor of global environmental health at the University of California Berkeley, told Vox that “there are anti-pollution laws in India but they aren’t enforced well, so while major cities can ban pollution sources like brick kilns from within their boundaries, they can’t stop exhaust from blowing over from the perimeter.”

This year, the central government has proposed the removal of environmental clearances for construction projects up to 50,000 square meters (5,40,000 square feet), more than doubling the previous threshold. Dust from such projects is a major polluter; the new policies would surely create more.

Economic cost of air pollution to India

A World Bank study released in 2016 showed that India lost more than 8.5 per cent of its GDP in 2013 due to the cost of increased welfare and lost labour due to air pollution. At India’s current size of $2.6 trillion, the loss equals about $221 billion.

Another study by the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, found that air pollution cost Mumbai and Delhi $10.66 billion in 2015, or about 0.71 per cent of the country’s GDP.

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Shashank Shekhar

Shashank Shekhar works as a Deputy Editor for DB Post. He specialises in investigative, terrorism, internal security and policy-making related stories. He has an active interest in tracking cybercrime, financial fraud, technology, automobile and latest trends. He can be reached at: shashank.shekhar3@bdcorp.in Follow him on Twitter @shashankrnq