Climate and Us | Pollution: An invisible public health crisis. CAQM must respond

The Commission for Air Quality Management (CAQM) for the National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas, which has sweeping powers, seems conspicuously absent from communicating with the general public in the past ten days
Invisible to most, air pollution is wreaking havoc in families that have adults or children with comorbidities (Sanchit Khanna/ Hindustan Times) PREMIUM
Invisible to most, air pollution is wreaking havoc in families that have adults or children with comorbidities (Sanchit Khanna/ Hindustan Times)
Updated on Nov 29, 2021 05:05 PM IST
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ByJayashree Nandi

Delhi and several parts of the National Capital Region (NCR) have been recording “severe” air quality for 11 days now. As per Central Pollution Control Board’s air quality index (AQI) warnings, this category of air quality affects healthy people and seriously impacts those with existing diseases.

Invisible to most, air pollution is wreaking havoc in families that have adults or children with comorbidities. It’s like the worries and fears induced by Covid-19 are back, now in the form of invisible, toxic pollution particles. Except this silent epidemic registers a spike every winter over many parts of north India.

On Sunday morning, a friend shared her conversation with her daughter’s paediatrician, who said that there is a jump in respiratory ailments, nebuliser use and even certain behavioural concerns among children in Delhi. Her child has been on nebuliser twice a day for a week now. The anxiety of reopening of schools earlier this month after Covid cases waned and then closing once again due to severe air quality has also left children unsettled.

The World Health Organization (WHO) earlier this year revised its air quality guidelines, making them even more stringent in the light of new health evidence on impacts of air pollution. According to the new thresholds, the average 24-hour exposure to PM2.5 must remain below 15µg/m³, down from 25µg/m³. In the case of PM10 particles — typical dust particles — the safe threshold has been lowered from 50 to 45µg/m³. In terms of exposure over a year-long period, the threshold for PM2.5 has been brought down from 10 to 5µg/m³ and for PM10, from 20 to 15µg/m³.

Delhi’s air pollution levels on Saturday ranged from 220 micrograms per cubic metres to 240 micrograms per cubic metres as per Central Pollution Control Board. These numbers give us an idea of what is air pollution costing us.

Each year, exposure to air pollution is estimated to cause seven million premature deaths globally and result in the loss of millions more healthy years of life according to WHO. Among children, this could include reduced lung growth and function, respiratory infections, and aggravated asthma. In adults, ischaemic heart disease and stroke are the most common causes of premature death due to air pollution, and evidence is also emerging of other effects such as diabetes and neurodegenerative conditions, WHO said in September when it released its new guidelines. This puts the burden of disease attributable to air pollution on a par with other major global health risks such as unhealthy diet and tobacco smoking, WHO had added.

The State of Global Air (SOGA 2020) estimated that over 116,000 infants in India died within a month after their birth due to exposure to severe air pollution in 2019.

We cannot blame stubble burning in the neighbouring states for this spike in air pollution. A senior official from the ministry of earth sciences’ air quality early warning system said, “This time emissions from localised pollution sources combined with hostile meteorological conditions have led to severe air quality. This is not because of past accumulation of pollutants from stubble fires because the lifetime of pollutants is about 3 to 7 days. We are expecting wind speed to go up marginally from Monday which may bring some relief.”

The Commission for Air Quality Management (CAQM) for the National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas, which has sweeping powers, seems conspicuously absent from communicating with the general public in the past ten days. The CAQM on November 16 announced that there will be a ban on construction work and offline classes in Delhi and NCR; trucks carrying non-essential supplies will not be allowed to enter the national capital; ordered strict enforcement of the ban on diesel generator sets; schools and colleges for in-person classes would close indefinitely; industries using fuel would only be allowed to run if they use gas, or will need to close, and six of 11 thermal plants in 300km of the radius of Delhi will have to stop functioning till November 30.

CAQM, however, has not reviewed its order and has not communicated how the spike could be dealt with. Clear, frequent communication from CAQM could also help ease and improve air pollution levels and push authorities in NCR to review the actions to be taken to deal with air pollution spikes more proactively by managing local sources of emissions.

The views expressed are personal

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Tuesday, January 18, 2022