Slow poision: Hold your breath, the air in Mumbai is toxic

  • Badri Chatterjee, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
  • Updated: Apr 13, 2015 16:24 IST

Four years ago, Ratilal Khandelwal moved from his home near a textile factory in Bhiwandi – where he had lived for 15 years – to Vile Parle. He had just been diagnosed with lung failure.

His doctor told him the air in his locality was to be blamed for his illness, and he would have to move to a place with cleaner air, if he wanted to prolong his life.

“Doctors told me I had bronchitis from breathing the unclean air around my residence. I was forced to move somewhere with better air quality for the sake of my children, so they would not have to suffer like I did,” said 48-year-old Khandelwal.

Khandelwal moved to breathe cleaner air; but most people living in cities and towns in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region don’t have that option. Khandelwal’s doctor, Sanjeev Mehta, who is a pulmonologist at Lilavati Hospital, Bandra, said, “During his stay at Bhiwandi, Khandelwal had repeated attacks of bronchitis and had to keep taking steroids and antibiotics to stop the recurrence of cough and phlegm. After moving out of the place, he is doing much better, and using simple inhalers now.”

The Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB)’s Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Stations (AAQMSs) measure three air-quality parameters: oxides of nitrogen, sulphur dioxide, and Respirable Suspended Particulate Matter (RSPM), which is a mixture of minute particles of dust, soot, chemicals, organic substances and other pollutants.

An analysis of pollution data for Mumbai in the past one year shows that the city’s air quality reached dangerous levels on many days. On June 23, 2014, the levels of RSPM recorded at MPCB’s Sion station touched 390 unit micrograms/cubic metre (µg/m3). On December 31, 2014 and January 1, 2015 the levels of RSPM were 370 µg/m3 and 379 µg/m3 respectively. While RSPM levels between 0-100 µg/m3 is indicated as ‘good’ or safe, anything more than 150 µg/m3 is considered ‘poor.’

The highest level of oxides of nitrogen was observed on September 28, 2014, at 208 µg/m3. The acceptable limits for both sulphur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen are 0-80 µg/m3. Anything beyond 368 µg/m3 for sulphur dioxide, and 181 µg/m3 for oxides of nitrogen, is considered ‘poor’.

According to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), a decreasing trend has been observed in sulphur dioxide (SO2) levels in residential areas, due to the introduction of clean fuel standards, use of LPG instead of diesel in certain vehicles, and de-industrialisation in the city. But levels of RSPM, which can pass through the body’s air filtration system to seep into the lungs, has been growing as a result of the increasing number of vehicles, the fine dust released during construction activity, illegal and open burning of fuel and wastes, and combustion of unclean fuel.

SC Kollur, scientific officer, MPCB, said, “There are a variety of reasons due to which levels of RSPM and oxides of nitrogen increased. Specifically, all the dust coming from road construction or road digging around the station at Sion on these days could have affected the air quality. The crushed powder used for road construction is one of the main causes of poor air quality.”

Within the city, there are variations in pollution levels due to geographic reasons. In general, data from MPCB’s Bandra station have shown slightly lower levels of RSPM, compared to Sion. On November 28 and 29 last year, the station in Bandra recorded its highest RSPM levels, at 215 µg/m3 and 224 µg/m3 respectively. “During this period, a new flyover was coming up at Mazgaon Tadwadi near Kalanagar, Bandra (East). Dust was released from the construction site for the flyover, and most of the traffic was diverted on these days, causing a lot of vehicular emission,” said Kollur.

According to the Maharashtra Motor Vehicles Department, there are seven lakh cars on the road in Mumbai, and private vehicle ownership is encouraged by authorities by adding flyovers and expressways, instead of developing mass rapid transit systems. The number of private vehicles has grown by 57% in the past eight years, compared to a 23% increase in public buses.

Air quality monitoring stations reported lower levels of RSPM during monsoon months, when the rains wash away suspended pollutants in the air. The lowest level of RSPM to be measured in the past year at Sion was 36 µg/m3, on August 29, while that in Bandra was 30 µg/m3, recorded on July 11.

Philip Earis, a scientist and resident of Bandra, said, “This is possibly due to wet deposition and air scrubbing by rainfall. Higher levels of particulates were observed during winter months, possibly due to lower mixing heights and more calm conditions. It can be said that Mumbai’s air quality worsens in winter months, and improves with the onset of the monsoon.”

While Delhi was termed the most polluted city in the world by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in its 2014 study, environmentalists are of the belief that Mumbai will match the Capital’s abysmal pollution standards soon enough. Environmentalist Stalin D said, “Concrete structures are built in such a way that the air carrying pollutants get trapped within the city. We are responsible for creating a hot and polluted island with excessive construction, garbage emitting smoke from dumps, digging up of roads. The list goes on. We are on our way to being called the next most polluted city.”

What is air pollution?
According to the Maharshtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB)website, air pollution is caused mainly by transportation, fuel combustion in stationary sources, burning of fossil fuels like coal, wood, dry grass, and construction activity. Motor vehicles produce high levels of carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrocarbons (HC) and Nitrogen oxides (NOx). Construction activities, bad roads and burning of fossil fuels are responsible for dust (particulate matter) pollution. Residential and commercial activities also contribute to air pollution.

Lower levels of sulphur dioxide
According to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), a decline has been observed in sulphur dioxide (SO2) levels in residential areas of many cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Lucknow, Bhopal in the last few years. The decreasing levels may be attributed to the introduction of clean fuel standards and use of LPG in certain vehicles, and a decline in industries in big cities.

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