Take a deep breath.
Can you smell it? It’s the scent of death.
Until a few months ago
Even I didn’t know
That the sky was so grey,
That the 13000 litres of air I was breathing every day
Was so poisonous, so polluted
And that this particulate matter was rooted
In my lungs, seeping into my blood stream
When I found out- I wanted to scream.
Because all those frequent headaches I got
Was because of the air which left me so distraught.
Lung cancer, stunted organ development, respiratory diseases
All because we drive our Mercedes’??
Yes, you heard that right.
Cars cause 60% of the pollution - just because our sight
Is not designed to see these invisible particles
Doesn’t mean we should ignore those articles
In the newspapers- which talk about how
Every day in the city that seems so pretty- is somehow
Bringing us closer to bad days.
But this is OUR city. We’re not going to run.
Instead of feeling sorry and scared for our sons
and daughters and mother and fathers,
We can find a solution
For this terrible terrible air pollution.
Trust me its possible - but only if we work together.
Seeing everyone gathered here, despite the cold weather
Is a step itself, to make a change.
It gives me hope, that someone, somewhere wanted to arrange
An event like this.
Good morning everyone, my name is Naina Durga. I am a 16 year old girl who has decided to take
ownership of the air I breathe. I’ve already talked about how poisonous the air is and how I’ve been
affected by it. It’s time now to talk about what we can actually do, so that my generation doesn’t suffer in the future.
There are 3 levels of these solutions;
1. At an individual level: the first thing we, as individuals can do is to inform ourselves. Delhi’s air
has started to gain recognition by the media- READ those articles, read blogs, listen to the radio,
watch the news. The more informed you are the more you can spread the word. Know what the
safe level is and what the actual pollution level is so you can plan your day ahead. If its red air
pollution day- try to stay indoors, go to the gym instead of the park. Did you know that between
12-4 the air outside is the best? The second thing to do is protect ourselves. Wear pollution masks which have a rating of N-95 or N-99 (They can be anywhere from 85 rupees to 4000 rupees)
Disposable surgeons masks DO NOT have any effect whatsoever in filtering pure air. Buying air purifiers, while they are expensive, will help in the long run. A less expensive way to reduce indoor air pollution is to use plants such as areca palm, spider plant, or snake plant.
2. At the communal level: attending protests and rallies – like this one - which push for sustainable
development or greener public transport can be beneficial for the environment. Apart from that, joining environmental NGO’s, signing petitions banning crop burning or even bringing up the topic of air pollution in daily conversations can be of help.
3. At the government level: push for policies which keep environmental sustainability in mind. India uses Euro III or Euro IV fuel, rather than the much greener Euro VI fuel (which is used in the U.S.) because it’s a much cheaper option. The odd even rule - which may not have been completely effective - was at least a sign that the government was finally giving air pollution some thought.
Some of you may be wondering what I’ve done to pursue clean air - recently, I thought of setting up a clean air club in my school to inform children my age that air pollution wasn’t just something we read about in our textbooks - it is actually a problem. I know I’m running short of time- so I’d like to end by saying that I am CONFIDENT that we can reduce the air pollution. It may be difficult, but its not impossible.
(Excerpt from Delhi teen Naina Lavakare's Slam Poetry performance and speech at the Help Delhi Breathe citizen rally held on January 17, 2016.)
Naina Durga is a New Delhi-based high schooler who has volunteered to support Care for Air's school programs. Her interest in clean air evangelism grew with each CFA presentation she attended, culminating in the initiation of a Clean Air Club in her own school. She is in the process of recruiting volunteers across senior grades for her Club so that together, they can create a cohort of student ambassadors who will educate younger children to form the next generation of pollution warriors.
As a kid growing up in Delhi and visiting my relatives in Calcutta, I was proud to live in a city with clean air and open roads – two things that Calcutta even in the 80s lacked. I remember being bothered by the pollution in Calcutta and the buses belching out black smoke. Little did I know that the city I loved would also go a similar route.
Delhi has now become unlivable on more than one count – overcrowded colonies, traffic jams, water shortage, and hazardous air. However, we Indians are very resilient when it comes to getting used to various crises – and we learn to live with them… till the crisis really hits home.
That’s what happened to me one December night in 2014. I woke up in the middle of the night feeling I couldn’t breathe. I wanted to go out and deeply inhale fresh air but I knew the air outside wouldn’t help – it was smelly and smoky – perhaps from the trail of trucks on NH-8 close to where I live. The next day my doctor told me that I had had a bronchospasm and put me on inhalers!
With this kick, I converted my intention of getting a room air purifier into action. A few months later a friend presented me with a face mask to wear when I was outside - including in the car. This combination of room air purifier and face mask really helped – and soon after adopting this combination I came off the inhaler.
Now I do my best to spread the word about air pollution and recommend that people take steps to protect themselves from its hazards. But the long-term solution and the solution for the millions of residents of Delhi who would find the cost of a purifier burdensome or impractical is to bring the pollution levels down.
I’m happy to be part of Care for Air and do my bit in supporting an organization that is spreading awareness in different groups such as school children and doctors. Let us hope that before long we will reach a tipping point – where clean air become a citizens’ demand that the politicians cannot ignore. Without this happening I am afraid that the haze is unlikely to lift from Delhi’s skies.
Abhishek Bhartia is the director of Sitaram Bhartia Institute of Science and Research, a nonprofit hospital and medical research centre in Delhi. Abhishek has engineering and management degrees from Cornell University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.He has long been bothered by poor air quality in urban India. He hopes we can make a positive change by mobilising information and the will of many.
This seems like a no-brainer, doesn't it? When air pollution is bad outside, it makes sense to wear a pollution mask to protect yourself. Right? Well, it turns out the answer is more complicated than that and health professionals are divided on whether its wise to recommend masks or not…an inconvenient reality I learned as I headed down my own journey of learning how to protect myself and my family against Delhi’s toxic air, starting in 2012. As a health professional myself I had to learn where I fell on the issue.
Here’s my story in a nutshell: My husband, two kids and I arrived in Delhi from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 2012, excited for the coming 3 years of adventure living in Delhi. We weren’t prepared for what was to become our greatest challenge living in Delhi, but it hit us hard in our first months—we felt the air pollution in our chests and heads and tasted it in our mouths. The kids felt lethargic and I often felt dizzy. As a public health professional, I knew we had at least some recourse and sent away for home air purifiers and pollution masks. At the time only a few quality brands of either were available anywhere in India. Online, I ordered a bunch of different high-quality, certified air pollution masks from abroad for my family to try (3M, Vogmask and Totobobo) in hopes that we would find ones that fit and felt comfortable enough to incorporate into our lives whenever we left the house.
It was naive to think it would be that easy. None of us liked the way they felt, taking them on and off was a drag, and worst of all, no one else was wearing masks at the time and we attracted a lot of negative attention. It wasn’t working. Frustrated by this failure, I began research to support my argument that we really SHOULD be wearing these masks…and this is where things got complicated. I found that for every expert who swears by them, there is one who doesn’t recommend them. What’s going on here? Here is my simple summary of what I have learned.
First some relevant facts:
The case for wearing a pollution mask:
The public health message on air pollution is to minimize your exposure to toxic air as much as possible. So, it makes sense that a well-made, properly fitting mask would be a good response for when you are outside. Here are a couple scholarly articles for the nerdier among you on how N95 certified masks can help decrease health risks:
The case against wearing a mask:
Health experts who don’t recommend wearing masks argue that there are just too many variables at play to make a solid recommendation that people should wear them. The mask needs to be well made to give you the kinds of benefits we are talking about so any old cloth won’t do (though they may keep out the larger particles, so saying an old cloth does “nothing” is also not accurate!)and there are a lot of masks on the market that don't filter the small particles we are most worried about PM2.5 and smaller. It also needs to fit well so that you pull the air you breathe through the filters in the mask. If there are gaps in how the mask fits you, it may not be doing you any good at all and in fact give you a false sense of protection. Under this false sense of protection you may engage in rigorous activities, pull in more air more deeply than you would without a mask and actually harm yourself more than you would have not wearing one and modulating your activity to keep your heart rate down. Finally, if the air inside your home/school/office is just as bad, what’s the point in wearing a mask when you venture outside? Will you wear your mask all the time? That's just not practical. Just a little of the time? If just a little of the time, is the inconvenience worth it?
This is the thumb-nail sketch, mind you, but with everything I’ve learned about the benefits and limitations of masks over the last few years, I find I am still a firm pro-masker. I think people are smart enough to understand the complexities here… it has to be a good one, it has to fit and hardest of all, you do have to wear it for it to work. But some protection some of the time is better than none at all (minimizing your exposure is the name of the game, remember.) Last summer my family and I moved to cleaner climes and don’t have to manage the fumbling and fuddling of air pollution masks in our daily lives anymore but, to me, its really heartening to see that quality masks like 3M, Totobobo, Vogmask and Respro are popping up in the markets and on faces all over Delhi now. It is a small tool in the arsenal against the harmful health effects of air pollution but air pollution is a serious foe and we need all the tools we can get.
Genevieve Chase is an American public health professional who has worked for organizations including the UN and the World Bank. In October 2014, Genevieve founded Delhiair.org, an informational web site about the health effects of air pollution. Since then, she has been pulling people together around the issues of air pollution, to create partnerships for innovative solutions. She lives in Washington D.C. with her family.
I have lived in Delhi for just over two years, and it’s incredible how the conversation about air pollution has changed since I first arrived in January 2014.
I remember very distinctly stepping off the plane at IGI into what looked and felt like the lingering smoke of some kind of explosion or fire, or other natural or unnatural disaster.
I’d only ever been to Delhi in May (the previous year) when the air seemed perfectly fine, so this was pretty alarming. My husband, who’d arrived a few months earlier, told me not to worry - “it’s the Delhi fog. It’s normal for this time of year”. But it didn’t look normal, and it didn’t smell normal either. I tried to relax, determined not to be an annoying, paranoid ex-pat.
But the ‘fog’ lingered well into February, as did my concern. I started asking questions about why the air was like this. The most frequent answer I got was ‘dust’ – dust from Rajasthan, dust from construction, dust from unpaved roads. And at the time, that was reasonably re-assuring - ‘dust’ didn’t sound so bad. It certainly didn’t sound toxic. I tried to ignore my own sore throat, and my kids’ night-time coughing.
Two years have passed and now I know it’s not just dust, and it’s not just fog, and it is toxic. I feel like every conversation I have these days, is about PM2.5, vehicle emissions, the burning of biomass and fuel standards - I am not alone in my journey
And what’s happened between now and 2014? Is the air really so much worse now? I decided to take a look at the historical data on the US Embassy website (http://newdelhi.usembassy.gov/airqualitydata.html), and count the number of days that the PM 2.5 ug/m3 level went over 300. I looked at the month of January 2014 and then at January 2016. I wanted to get a general sense of whether there had been any big changes. The comparison doesn’t take into account the time of day the levels were over 300, or how long the levels stayed over 300, or how much over 300 they went, or the weather, or any other environmental factors. So, yes, it’s a flawed comparison. But still, bear with me and take a look at the numbers: January 2016 had 25 days during which (at some point) the PM2.5 levels went over 300ug/m3, and January 2014 had 23 - only two days less.
So, what happened? Why did no one mention this to me when I specifically asked both expats and Indians in May 2013, what it was like to live in Delhi? (They told me about the traffic and the heat.) How did the conversation change so dramatically?
Looking back, there was the whole Delhi vs Beijing debate that was covered in local and international press around May 2014. That was a game changer. It’s not that everyone suddenly agreed we had a health emergency on our hands, but for the first time we had data that enabled us to link our own experience with global baselines.
Over the course of the year that followed, air quality made its way into conversations across Delhi, onto social media platforms, and into the courts. And then came odd-even (which may not have been very effective in the actual lowering of pollution levels), but by January 2016 it was impossible not to talk about air.
So in 2016 we find ourselves sharply more aware of the public health crisis in our city, and the government has moved from denial to promising solutions. It is still not clear that anyone is ready to face up to hard choices that are really needed to clean Delhi’s air, choices that will require action far beyond the capital. What we do know is that living in a toxic cloud is no choice at all, and now that we have the numbers, there can be no return to the ignorance of years past or to an acceptance that every citizen’s right to a clean air can be so severely curtailed.
Aurelia Driver is a South African writer and filmmaker living in Delhi. It was a search for ways to protect the health of her two young children that first sparked Aurelia’s interest in issues of air quality, and led her to a broader investigation of Delhi’s pollution crisis and its possible solutions. She is excited about being able to use her experience in the visual media in working towards broad-based community awareness.
It’s been eighteen months since,
I read the headline with a wince,
“Delhi most polluted city in the world”, it said,
Filling me with great anxiety and dread,
Two little tots dandled on my knee,
And another likely, to make it three,
“Don’t worry”, said my wife, “it’ll be fine”,
“We had the same air in ‘99,
And then see how it changed,
With a little hope, all can be arranged.”
“I’ll wait a year”, quoth I,
“and then give something else a try”,
“For our elected must now sound the clarion cry,
And we shall see what our netas do,
To turn our sky from grey to blue”.
The days fled past, as if in terror,
Running from the grim pallor,
That left us breathless with the wheeze,
As we watched our youngest cough and sneeze.
The presses worked overtime to convey,
Awful statistics with increasing dismay,
Of billowing plumes from nocturnal trucks,
That from our lungs the power sucks,
And construction dust and smoking stacks,
All displaying what the capital lacks,
Some left town so the air wouldn’t kill,
The Government however sat stock still,
With nary acknowledgment or apology,
Bidding adieu to the environmental refugee.
“Enough of this stupor”, I thought,
“My patience has gone and my nerves are fraught,
It is time to try my inadequate bit,
And see if any solution would fit.”
The problem was a mountain high,
But not for kindred souls who aren’t shy,
Using our legal skills, albeit modest,
We moved the Supreme Court for our youngest,
Two couples joined forces with us,
As we sought to kick up a fuss.
The “Infants’ petition” was in autumn born,
And on every paper and channel it was on,
People who knew that fireworks charred and killed,
Now learnt of tiny lungs that stilled.
The Court was sadly unconvinced of this fate,
And allowed the case to be given another date,
But come Diwali week and we find,
That Delhi’s heart is stronger than its mind,
Sales have plummeted giving succour,
So that kids and animals don’t suffer,
No court or leader gave us this answer,
For wisdom and empathy can never be asunder,
Now with brightness of eye and sense of purpose,
Our promises to little hearts leave us nerveless,
With ten million voices fuelling our vigour anew.
This struggle will grow and continue,
No matter what, we will fight and survive,
And bury alive that dreaded PM 2.5.
Gopal Sankaranarayanan is an advocate of the Supreme Court of India and founding member, Care for Air. When his wife and middle child developed allergies, he started looking for solutions. He sees clean air as a fundamental right of all citizens and believes in action by the people where the Government abdicates its role.
Tell us your personal stories on how you battle air pollution in your daily life and in your community.