People in Delhi exposed to much higher levels of air toxins than estimated: CSE

Ambient air quality data not the real indicator; CSE demands immediate implementation of priority pollution control action

Published: Thursday 11 December 2014

Data released by Delhi non-profit Centre for Science and Environment shows that people in Delhi are exposed to shocking amounts of air toxins. The data was gathered following a unique initiative to assess how much pollution people breathe in on a daily basis in Delhi when overall winter pollution stays high and elevated. The study found that daily personal exposure to toxic air is significantly higher than the background ambient air pollution that is monitored by the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) in Delhi. This can be a serious risk to public health.

This is worrying and scary as what matters most from public health perspective is the daily dose of toxin that people breathe. If urgent steps are not taken to bring pollution levels down to meet the clean air standards, it will lead to public health disaster.  On an average, actual personal exposure has been nearly two times higher than the background ambient levels. 

This has also shown that personal exposure monitoring can complement conventional ambient monitoring done by the regulators to assess what people breathe in the real world while moving through the city. This can make monitoring more relevant to public health protection, and make pollution data easily available to people to understand and take action. 

How CSE conducted the study: CSE has used a state of the art portable air quality monitoring equipment to track how much pollution an individual is exposed to in Delhi while doing their daily chores. This dust track aerosol monitor measures both mass and size fraction of the particulate matter. A select group of prominent citizens of Delhi and also patients suffering from asthma participated in this monitoring exercise. 

One day (24 hours) realtime monitoring for each individual from the select group was carried out on assigned days within the period November 2014 and December 9, 2014. Their 24 average exposure was compared with the background ambient levels monitored by DPCC at the nearest official monitoring station. While the background PM2.5 levels are already three to four times higher than the 60 microgramme per cum, the actual level recorded by the individuals is much higher. 

Prominent citizens chip in: Well-known citizens of Delhi who participated in this exercise include Bhure Lal, chairperson, Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA), resident of Lodhi Estate in Lutyen’s Delhi; Harish Salve, senior advocate in Supreme Court and also the amicus curiae in the ongoing air pollution case in the Supreme Court who lives in Vasant Vihar in South Delhi; Ashok Lall, noted architect who lives in Civil Lines—a pollution hot spot in Delhi; Randeep Guleria, head of the Pulmonary Department at All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) who works and lives in the hospital premises and adjacent colony; William Bissel, head of Fabindia and resident of Hauz Khas Enclave in South Delhi. The group also included those who suffer seriously from asthma. They include Bharati Chaturvedi, head of NGO Chintan who lives in Ravindra Nagar in Central Delhi; Kaushik Das Gupta, journalist and resident of Patparganj and Avikal Somvanshi, research professional and resident of Alaknanda in south Delhi. 

Bad mornings: While everyone expects the pollution level to come down during night and early morning, results show trends to the contrary. Cool and calm nights worsen the inversion effect conjoined with high pollution from truck traffic entering Delhi. Salve who lives in Vasant Vihar, close to outer Ring Road, recorded highest exposure between 10-11 pm on November 25-26 when the hourly average of PM2.5 was about 408 microgramm (µg) per cum. The levels continued to remain elevated all through the night. 

Bissell went for morning walk at 7.30 am to Jahanpanah Park near Greater Kailash Part II on 19-20 November. The hourly real time average of PM2.5 between 8am to 9am in that area was 705.68 µg per cum. The closest DPCC background levels for the same time period was 318 µg cum. Similarly, Lall, a resident of Civil Lines who goes for walk every morning to the Ridge in North Campus of Delhi University recorded highest hourly average of PM2.5 between 7 and 8 am at 895 µg per cum on November 5-6. 

The most vulnerable: Chaturvedi, resident of Ravindra Nagar near Khan Market and also an asthma patient, experienced the highest hourly average PM2.5 exposure levels during morning walk between 6am and 7 am when the hourly average ranged between 677.65 (6am to 7am) and 660.9 µg per cum (7am-8am).  The hourly average background levels were 238 µg per cum and 221 µg per cum respectively—about three times higher. 

Kaushik Das Gupta, an asthma patient experienced severe breathing troubles post mid-night inside his house in Patparganj on November 5-6 in East Delhi when PM10 levels had peaked around 1 am to 2 am to 744 µg per cum when the hourly ambient average was 249 µg per cum—about three times higher.

How clean is Lodhi Garden? Bhure Lal, resident of Lodhi Estate, was monitored on November 12-13. The hourly average PM2.5 level was highest between 5.50 am and 6.50 am at 1195.83 µg per cum when he had gone for walk in Lodhi Garden. This is the place where rich and the powerful of Delhi come for walk. As that day was also a bad smoggy day, his monitoring was repeated on December 8-9 and showed levels on a better day had come down a little but morning hours still showed very high levels of the pollutant. During 5am to 6am and 6am to 7 am the hourly average PM2.5 levels were 672 µg per cum and 762 µg per cum respectively—about two times higher than the background ambient level.

Message for walkers, cyclists: On November 23, asthma patient Avikal Somvanshi followed the pollution trail around venues for outdoor exercise – India Gate where Delhi Marathon was organised and Connaught Place where weekly weekend event Raahagiri is organised. That morning was visibly smoggy and reported the coldest temperature until that date this year. At 7 -8 am at the India Gate the levels were as high as 815 µg per cum when the Delhi Marathon started. This was 2.4 times higher than the background ambient level of 339 µg per cum. The levels increased to a very high level near President’s Estate (Mother Teresa Crescent Road) – where the hourly average of 1,029 µg per cum was recorded between 8-9 am—this was 3.4 times higher than the ambient levels. There was a massive traffic jam at this point as traffic was diverted for the marathon. In Connaught Place, where the Raahagiri event was taking place in the morning, (everyone comes for morning walks, cycling and jogging), the hourly average level between 9-10 am in that smoggy morning was 1,050 µg per cum. This was close to three times higher than the ambient levels. While traffic was closed in inner circle there was traffic on the outer circle of Connaught Place. Monitoring was repeated in late afternoon when it was warmer with improved wind speed, levels had reduced to 200 µg per cum. This clearly shows how smog build-up during nights and early morning can harm people when they are also doing physical exercise for their health. 

Warm and windy conditions: It has also been noted that warmer days with good wind speeds are better for outdoor activities. On December 2, Guleria of AIIMS was monitored for 24 hours. He spent his time in the hospital and also travelled to North Campus. But his overall exposure and 24 hour average was much less than that of other participants in the programme. The 24 hour average recorded by him was 188 µg per cum. That day the nearest monitoring station at RK Puram also recorded lower levels of 24 hour average—124 µg per cum.  

While the real time exposure of the individual is higher than the background ambient levels, the trend curves of the two monitoring correlate. This shows when overall pollution levels in the city rise, the exposure for the individual also increases.  

Winter pollution increases exposure to pollutants:
This year winter pollution is back with a vengeance. Almost throughout the month of November and December, the levels of PM2.5, have remained on an average at least three to four times the 24-hourly standard of 60 µg per cubic metre, higher averages reaching up to four to seven times the standards and smog episode peaks hit eight to 10 times the standards. This is extremely dangerous for people suffering from asthma, other respiratory and cardiac problems and also for children and elderly.  

When CSE applied the National Air Quality Index announced by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change a month ago to the pollution level during November, it found that already 53 per cent of the days monitored for PM2.5 are in very poor category and 47 per cent of the days in severe category. The cocktail of pollutants can be deadly in Delhi. Without a stringent roadmap, every winter will turn back the pollution clock. Air pollution is rising steadily over the years. Every year, asthma and respiratory and other diseases will only increase. Delhi will have to take tough measures to control growing air pollution and fast.  

Stringent action and emergency measures 
Delhi cannot afford to fall behind when its pollution levels are rising rapidly and reaching unbearable levels. Delhi has already exhausted all soft options. Action in Delhi needs to gather momentum. CSE has released today the priority action plan that include pollution emergency action for smog episodes, short and medium term measures for more lasting and durable change to meet clean air standards in a time bound manner. These are: 

• Implement air quality index with health advisory with pollution emergency measures. 

• Leapfrog emissions standards to Euro V in 2017, and Euro VI in 2020. Nation-wide Euro IV should be on place by 2015. 

• Control dieselisation with tax measures to cut deadly toxic particles branded as class I carcinogen by WHO for strong link with lung cancer

• Fiscal measures to keep clean fuels like CNG competitive vis a vis diesel

• Impose stringent measures for on-road and old vehicles 

• Strategy for older cars: The potential impact of banning 15 year old private vehicles is very limited. Studies have shown that the average age of personal vehicles in Delhi is much shorter – four to seven years. Therefore, variety of strategies is needed to control pollution from on-road vehicles. 

• Tighten PUC, testing method and compliance: Grossly polluting vehicles can occur at any age group or vintage and these will have to be weeded out with a good inspection programme and smoky vehicle checks. 

• Deploy more advanced in-use monitoring strategies. Integrate on-board diagnostic system for in-use inspection; introduce remote sensing technology for screening on-road vehicles, among others. 

• Make PUC certificate conditional requirement for obtaining annual insurance for vehicles. 

• Need road worthiness tests for private vehicles. 

• Divert non-destined trucks and check overloading 

• Stringent action on visibly polluting vehicles: Smoky vehicle inspection based on spot check and on-road surveillance, high penalty and instant removal from road can make a difference inside the city as well as along the borders. 

• For scrapping old vehicles:

  • Implement cleaner emissions standards for new vehicles that will replace the older vehicles. 

  • Formal scrapping policy must ensure infrastructure to scrap old vehicles and at least 95 per cent of scrapped material is recycled. 

  • Implement end of pipe regulations for the vehicle manufacturers to ensure more than the 90 per cent of the material used in cars are recyclable. 

• Implement colour coding of old vehicles of pre-Euro I, Euro I and Euro II vintage and restrict their plying during smog episodes. 

• Impose higher taxes on older vehicles of Euro I and Euro II vehicles. 

• Improve and scale up public transport and last mile connectivity: Bring all the 11,000 buses under CNG within a year. Ensure reliable and frequent services, GPS enabled public information system; multi-modal integration for metro and bus and last mile connectivity

• Implement non-motorized network plan for time bound implementation: Mandate people and cycling friendly street design guidelines and standards for all roads. These should be made mandatory for approval of road network projects in Delhi. Protect walkways and cycle tracks from encroachment and ensure safe crossing. Implement the provision of Motor Vehicle Act 1988 that bars vehicles from being parked on pavements.  

• Restrain growth of cars with parking restraints and taxes: Eliminate free parking. Introduce effectively high and variable parking charges; introduce residential parking permits with fees;. Ban parking on footpaths under the provision of the Motor Vehicle Act 1988. Implement parking management area plans to plan and implement legal parking, ban and penalise illegal parking and rationalise on-street and off-street parking; Prohibit parking in green areas and in neighbourhood parks

• Need NCR-wide plan: Expand realtime air quality monitoring in the NCR and implement daily realtime data reporting. 

• Implement seamless public transport system in the NCR: Implement NCR wide seamless bus system and para transit system and remove tolls and tax barriers across borders for public transport within a year under reciprocal agreement; Implement plan for improved rail network

• Stop farm fires in the NCR: Make paddy straw burning an offence in the region. Need stringent enforcement under the Air Act 1980 to ban farm fires. This needs be enabled with incentive and subsidy for innovative farming methods that allow mixing of the straw with the soil to act as fertilizer and avoid stubble burning; Promote alternative uses of paddy straw for power generation. 

• Set up urban transport fund by tapping the revenue sources. 

• Implement priority action for power plant, open burning, generator sets and construction


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