Smog-Apocalypse: Death by Breathing

air-pollution-evs-51-728

It was the London of the 20th century mired in low hanging pollution that infiltrated the foggy city, when the word “smog” was coined for the first time. Today many Indian cities face this lethal condition. And many more will soon face yet more dire consequences if corrective steps are not taken. A known reason for pollution laden air is of course our ever increasing vehicular traffic. Add to this industrial smoke and effluents coming out everywhere. Lace this with construction dust, crop burning smoke and mushrooming thermal power stations. Soon our towns and villages too will be engulfed in this all pervasive smoggy grip.

There was a time when we actually romanticized the morning mist and thought of it as clouds settled on earth! The charming smoky invisible pall was actually cast by water droplets in the air! Sunlight reflecting off this hazy atmosphere was sans pollution. With the land cooling down, air became less able to hold moisture and water condensed in the air. This is the fog that happens in early winter mornings that automatically gets erased when the sun comes out.

There are all kinds of fog. Radiation fog is when temperatures are cold and there are no winds. Valley fog is fog that fills a valley and may last up to days because of the unique topographical layout. Upslope fog happens on hillsides while coastal fog occurs on coastlines. When fog forms ice crystals over surfaces it’s known as freezing fog. But fog turns into nasty haze when pollutants carried by wind currents gather and settle with the fog. This pollution laden hazy fog full of low-lying ozone is what is now commonly known as smog.

Smog is a killer. It makes you cough and burns eyes since it’s made up of ozone. When pollutants like nitrogen oxides react with the sunlight to form ozone then it’s not such a good idea to breathe it. Aside from sore throats and eye irritation it can lead up to chronic asthma. It also severely impacts productivity of agriculture in rural areas. These symptoms are now very common in most Indian towns and cities.

Smog is now a real threat to our social and ecological damage. Air pollution is certainly a very serious issue. In rural areas it is fuel-wood and biomass burning and in urban sites it is adulterated fuel, vehicle emission, traffic congestion and factory smoke that are major sources of pollutants that smog up particulate pollution to gag people. Although India has a low per capita emissions of greenhouse gases but the country as a whole is the third largest polluter after China and USA.

Continued exposure to particulate matter leads to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases such as asthma, bronchitis, lung cancer and heart attacks. Since 2010 studies have been revealing that outdoor air pollution is the fifth-largest killer in India. Around 620,000 early-deaths occurred from air pollution-related diseases in 2010 itself. According to a WHO study 13 of the 20 most-polluted cities in the world are in India. And the 2016 Environmental Performance Index ranked India 141 out of 180 countries.

There has been vociferous activism mostly by science backed NGOs that spurred action for improvements in air quality testing and monitoring. The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act was passed in 1981 to regulate air pollution. In 2015 the government together with IIT Kanpur launched the National Air Quality Index. In the last fifteen years India has been working unremittingly on regulatory reforms for improving its air quality. Most Indian cities however continue to violate air quality PM10 targets.

Respirable particulate matter pollution continues to be a key challenge. In May 2014 the World Health Organisation announced New Delhi as the most polluted city in the world. In November 2016, the great smog of Delhi created an environmental event that saw the city and neighboring region covered in dense smog. The present scenario is not much different and once again north India is struck by smoggy conditions with thick haze and air quality remaining at hazardous levels. Aside from the NCR area many more cities are experiencing smog with people literally gasping for breath. Smog-apocalypse or death by breathing is actually a fact now. Click on the link below to check out air pollution in India – Real-time Air Quality Index Visual Map:

http://aqicn.org/map/india/#@g/10.5933/91.0986/4z

Let There Be Light

download (1)

Image – Courtesy Google 

Deepawali, the festival of lights is just round the corner. It ritualistically begins with cleansing. Every household gets busy with this annual cleaning frenzy to rid abodes of months of dust, cobwebs, dirt, grime and filth that go nearly unnoticed, until now. Hidden corners, high ceilings, ceiling fans, shut cupboards, lofts, store rooms, and bathrooms are all cleaned up vigorously. The deep-cleaning spree is to turn our homes come out shining and new!

But while we are so enthusiastic about welcoming the festive season with a home that is spruced up and squeaky clean, should we also not be concerned about keeping our surroundings pollution free too? Should we not pause and question as to why we make use of fire-crackers that will be polluting not only the environment but also our bodies. Should our bodies not need more attention to be kept clean along with our households?

Fire-crackers are synonymous with Diwali celebrations that environmentalists for years have been attempting to warn off. Intelligent people certainly welcome the Supreme Court decision prohibiting sale of firecrackers in Delhi-NCR. Why don’t other cities follow suit and look forward to a relatively cleaner Diwali. Don’t we all want relief from the annual rise in air pollution levels during Diwali? It is true that in India pollution levels go up much higher than national standards just as soon as the winters begin. It is for this reason alone that there should be comprehensive control on air pollution all over the country.

Pollution after Diwali fireworks affects all parts of the body. Your skin, eyes, nose, heart and even lungs may get affected. Chronic diseases like asthma and other lung related allergies get seriously aggravated after Diwali pollution. Warns Dr. Suchika Gupta, co-founder and Managing Director of HERD Foundation: “There is little doubt that the numbers of patients suffering from respiratory diseases spikes up tremendously after Diwali, not to speak of fire related accidents that get victims rushed to hospitals. It is therefore best to light lamps and celebrate peacefully rather that invite hazardous substances in our bodies and our environment”.

Aside from risk of skin burns or similar suffering that may follow burning firecrackers, the other hazard comes from smog that soon engulfs surrounding areas. It makes breathing difficult. Yet house after house goes berserk lighting up all kinds of fire crackers that aside from profusely littering the streets also affects air quality. Smog filled up with chemicals from fireworks fills up the environment and continues to hit residents particularly during early mornings and late evenings. The concentrations of ultra-fine PM2.5 reach as high as 1,000 ug/m3, nearly 17 times the safe limit of 60 ug/m3.

So even when Diwali is over, the smog continues to affect morning walkers, school-going children, and anyone else who comes in contact with this pollution-laden air. How then does it help anyone to first take part in such hazardous activity, and then get affected by the toxic fumes? Think especially of the damage that occurs to people suffering from chronic respiratory diseases or those having weak immunity?

Anyone experiencing breathlessness, coughing fits, chest tightness or watery eyes after Diwali can be sure that these are after effects of high levels of air pollution. Such people should not be going about outdoors early morning and late evening. Additionally they should invest in a quality face mask. It is true that prolonged exposure to concentrated metal particles may cause serious lung diseases.

India’s Central Pollution Control Board routinely monitors four air pollutants namely sulphur dioxide (SO2), oxides of nitrogen (NOx), suspended particulate matter (SPM) and respirable particulate matter (PM10). Bursting firecrackers during Diwali sends PM2.5 levels soaring. New Delhi, the capital city ranks notoriously high on unhealthy levels of particulate matter pollution. So while the recent judgment is a step in the right direction, other Indian cities ought to follow strict norms too. Unfortunately air quality levels are monitored by the government in only a handful of cities!

HERD Foundation suggests – let there be light this Diwali in your homes and also in your minds! Go for a fire-cracker free Diwali and do yourself, your neigbourhood, and your city a huge favour. We take this opportunity to wish everyone a peaceful and fun-filled Deepawali. May the festive season ahead be one that paves the way for better health, cleaner environment and breathable air.

Images – Courtesy Google