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Breathing Mumbai’s air as bad as puffing 4 cigarettes a day, Delhi worse at 7.7

A new smartphone application, launched in Paris last month, attempts to put in perspective just how dangerous the levels of air pollution across the world is.

mumbai Updated: May 28, 2018 15:35 IST
Badri Chatterjee
Badri Chatterjee
Hindustan Times
A new smartphone application, launched in Paris last month, attempts to put in perspective just how dangerous the levels of air pollution across the world is.
A new smartphone application, launched in Paris last month, attempts to put in perspective just how dangerous the levels of air pollution across the world is. (Satyabrata Tripathy/HT Photo)

Breathing Mumbai’s air has the same effect on your body as smoking four cigarettes a day. In Delhi, it’s 7.7 cigarettes. Other big Indian cities aren’t far behind, with the effect ranging from two to eight cigarettes a day.

A new smartphone application, launched in Paris last month, attempts to put in perspective just how dangerous the levels of air pollution across the world is.

It uses location-specific data for the PM2.5 pollutant to calculate the quality of air in terms of cigarettes smoked. PM2.5 is floating particulate matter that includes both organic and inorganic pollutants. Their diameter is less than 2.5 microns, which means they can enter the respiratory system easily. The app, called ‘Shoot! I Smoke’, uses a study by Berkeley Earth, a California-based climate science analysis to make the calculation. It’s available free on both Android and iOS platforms.

“PM2.5 particles are small enough to work their way deep into the lungs and into the bloodstream, where they can trigger heart attacks, strokes, lung cancer and asthma,” reads the study, co-authored by Richard Mueller, a physics professor at University of California, Berkeley. “Here is the rule of thumb: one cigarette a day is the rough equivalent of a PM2.5 level of 22μg/m3. Of course, unlike cigarette smoking, the pollution reaches every age group.” The study, based on several others across China, found that Beijing had, on an average, a PM2.5 level of 85μg/m3 — equivalent to smoking four cigarettes. “The air pollution in New Delhi, in winter 2017, was 547μg/m3 (for PM2.5) — the same as about 25 cigarettes a day,” Mueller said.

Officials from the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), however, said it was incorrect to compare cigarette smoking with the effects of air pollution. “Such studies, including a recent one by the WHO, are incorrect as they do not have a standard method of collecting data from any regulatory agency,” said A Sudhakar, member secretary, CPCB.

“They conclude on whatever data is available, and come out with their own conclusions. This data is neither updated nor validated,” he said, and added that the Union environment ministry had already issued a clarification to WHO. “It will be simultaneously issued to all other international agencies, that from now on, data sourcing should be done only from CPCB.”

The app’s developers used real-time air pollution data from the World Air Quality Index project (aqicn.org) as their main data source. The app geo-locates one’s phone through the global positioning system (GPS), and connects it to the database, which shows the number of cigarettes smoked that day.

The app developers said people were only vaguely aware of the extent of air pollution in mega cities. “Air-quality monitoring stations only provide numbers that are specific to professionals who work on environmental issues. So, when you make this conversion to cigarettes, it makes it easier for people to understand what they are dealing with, and the consequences air quality has in their daily lives,” said Paris-born app developer Amaury Martiny, who developed the app with designer Marcelo Coelho from Brazil. He added that when users open the app, they will learn how detrimental their local air is to their health, in a quantitative yet graspable way. “By checking the app regularly, similar to a weather app, citizens will know to take simple measures on bad air quality days, such as staying indoors or wearing a mask,” said Martiny. “Particulate pollution will only get worse in countries such as India if measures are not taken to curb it. Developing countries continue to emit a large number of pollutants from coal-burning plants or transportation vehicles, amid construction projects and other investments related to fast-paced industrialisation.” The WHO, earlier this month, declared Delhi the most polluted mega city in the world and Mumbai, the fourth-most polluted. Its report also noted that 14 Indian cities were among the 20 most polluted in the world.