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Every day’s a bad air day

mumbai Updated: Apr 19, 2011 01:15 IST
Snehal Rebello
Snehal Rebello
Hindustan Times
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If you are among those driving past Sion every day, there’s a good chance you suffer from frequent headaches. That’s because there hasn’t been a single day since January when you haven’t inhaled more than twice the permissible amount of dust and other suspended particles in the air.

According to the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB), the average concentration of dust or respiratory suspended particulate matter (RSPM) between January to April at Sion was 234.82 micrograms per cubic metre (ug/m3). The permissible limit is 100 ug/m3. Even the average levels of nitrogen oxide emitted largely from vehicles are at 169 ug/m3; the permissible limit is 80 ug/m3.

Except for two good days in the last four months, the RSPM levels recorded on the Western Express Highway at Bandra (E) were 185.36 ug/m3.

It’s no wonder then that 54% of the 514 people surveyed by HT-C fore across Mumbai said they were more concerned about air pollution as compared to water and noise.

Mihir Shah, 35, an asthma patient, is among those concerned. Over the past year, his visits to the chest physician have become more frequent. With his office located at Andheri (E), Shah, who travels by rickshaw, inhales toxic pollutants from vehicles while being stuck in traffic jams. Not just that. Non-stop work on the Metro line gets dust, cement and other particles into his system.

“I have an in-built system that tells me pollution levels have risen. I start wheezing, get breathless and my chest gets heavy,” said Shah. “This happens every two months as compared to once in six months in the past.”

At least four independent studies in the past year have reached one conclusion: air pollution has increased and with it cancer-related risks and death due to respiratory tract infections.

According to experts, a spurt in residential and commercial construction activity as well infrastructure projects throws up huge amounts of dust, cement and other particles in the air.

Dr Shreekant Shetty, who practises at Wadala, said many of his patients with respiratory disorders such as bronchitis, chest congestion and bad cough are back just after four days.

“There are two culprits — the RCF factory at Chembur from where I can sometimes smell ammonia even at 9 am and the cement mixing plant at Bhakti Complex at Wadala,” said Shetty. “Often, I have to refer the patients to hospitals.”

An increase in private vehicles — about 400 are registered every day — along with constant movement of trucks, buses, heavy-duty diesel vehicles and diesel cars spew out 7,012 tons of nitrogen oxide per year. During peak hours, carbon emissions from two-wheelers rise by 75% as compared to 42% during non-peak hours.

“Even though we are seeing an improvement in both vehicle technology and fuel, the levels of nitrogen oxide are rising,” said Rakesh Kumar, director, National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), Worli.

While the city can neither limit construction nor individuals from buying vehicles, state agencies are proposing guidelines to bring down rising pollution levels. In a recent interim report, the civic body recommended the mandatory use of water sprinklers to settle dust and other particles at construction sites. Also, tyres of heavy vehicles carrying cement, stones, etc, must be washed before leaving for city roads from loading spots since they can spread particles over a 250-mt stretch, adding to existing pollutants.

“We have to discuss this with MPCB because it is the enforcing authority,” said BP Patil, chief engineer, Solid Waste Management Department.

NEERI suggested that the state levy a Clean Air Fund (CAF) from which it can earn up to Rs 2 crore per day. It would charge 50 paise to two-wheelers and Re 1 to four-wheelers per day. While malls could recover Rs 10 from cars parked in their parking lots on behalf of the government, vehicle manufacturers could also pay a one-time fee as CAF.

Whatever the solution, there must be effective coordination between agencies, said Meher Rafaat, convener of Clean Air, an NGO. “The coordination will make the issue effective. Moreover, MPCB and the civic body must get the latest air monitoring equipment and place it at spots where the readings are representative of the areas,” said Rafaat.

While the MPCB has no new action plan in place, a proposal to set up three more continuous air monitoring stations in Mumbai has been submitted to the Central Pollution Control Board. “Specifications on where to locate them have to be worked out,” said a senior official from MPCB on condition of anonymity as he is not authorised to speak to the media. Even the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority has decided to install three such stations.