Indian cities may struggle to meet new WHO pollution standards, experts say
The revised pollution guidelines by the World Health Organization (WHO), tightening the acceptable levels of pollutants might be a difficult feat to achieve for Indian cities, considering geographical and meteorological factors, but it draws attention to the high level of exposure to hazardous particles and gases that residents in Delhi face,environment and health experts said on Wednesday.
They added that with Covid-19 pandemic posing a public health hazard, the agencies should intensify action to combat air pollution.
The World Health Organization has tightened its air quality guidelines bringing down the annual PM 2.5 (respirable pollution particles) guideline from 10 micrograms per cubic metres to 5 micrograms per cubic metres and the 24-hour PM 2.5 limit from 25 micrograms per cubic metres to 15 micrograms per cubic metres. It has also tightened norms for five other pollutants based on recent evidence of health impacts associated with them, a WHO report released on Wednesday, said.
Experts said the new levels show how even the slightest increase in pollution levels in a city can impact the health of its residents, especially the vulnerable sections.
“By reducing the ambient levels of PM2.5 (particulate matter with diameter less than 2.5 micrometres) and PM10 (particulate matter with diameter less than 10 micrometres) under the new air quality guidelines, WHO has re-emphasised the need for putting in more efforts to control particulate matter concentration in air. Though it would be a huge challenge to achieve those levels, but it should be taken as a wake-up call. Efforts by all stakeholders needs to be intensified in order to control pollution levels,” said Dr Arun Sharma, director, National Institute for Implementation Research of Non-Communicable Diseases, Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).
Releasing its revised air quality guidelines, the WHO in a statement highlighted that in recent years several studies have established how even a slight increase in pollution levels in a region can adversely impact the health of its residents. A 2013 assessment by WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) highlighted that outdoor air pollution is carcinogenic to humans, with the particulate matter component of air pollution most closely associated with increased cancer incidence, especially lung cancer. An association also has been observed between outdoor air pollution and an increase in cancer of the urinary tract, the 2013 report said.
Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director (research and advocacy), Centre for Science and Environment, said that while it might be tough to conform to the new WHO guidelines for a city like Delhi, where even the baseline pollution levels are just short of meeting the national annual standards of 40ug/m3, it is important to scale up action to reduce pollution levels as much as possible.
“What we saw during the Covid-19 lockdown, when all pollution sources in the city were shut, there was a reduction of 40-45% in pollution levels. This was a little close to our own pollution standards. While the WHO standards are tough to meet but we need to come up with tighter and stricter action plans for pollution management. Action should not just be localised, we need regional action plans as well,” Roychowdhury said.
Delhi, because of its landlocked geography and its weather conditions, faces a year-long pollution problem that reaches emergency levels every winter. Delhi’s baseline pollution study, the minimum pollution when major polluting sources are shut, which was conducted by the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) during the Covid-19 pandemic last year shows that the baseline levels of PM10 and PM2.5 were found to be 38ug/m3 (+/- 8) and 22ug/m3 (+/- 6) respectively. The baseline value of NO2 (nitrogen dioxide) was found to be 8 parts per billion (+/- 3), which is also considered to be very high.
Dr Arvind Kumar, founder, Lung Care Foundation and chairperson of Institute of Chest Surgery (chest onco-surgery and lung transplantation), said all possible efforts should be made to resolve the crisis. “As doctors, we see the effects of air pollution on people every day. This is a public health emergency, impacting the lives of people but its worst impacts are seen in South Asian countries like India. For the sake of our future generations, we need to commit to doing anything and everything it takes to solve this crisis,” he said.