With the onset of summer in Delhi and the hottest months of the year approaching, concerns about air pollution recede into the background. We have other things to worry about – the approaching scorching heat, water and electricity shortages many still face, flies and open piles of rubbish spreading germs; yet air pollution still shrouds us, our invisible, deadly companion.
The problem is no longer as visible, no longer the in-your-face, eye-stinging, throat-inflaming smog we used to kindly - and incorrectly - refer to as the winter fog. Yet it is still present, just less visible.
As I sit and write this the sky looks a lovely shade of blue and PM 2.5 numbers are hovering just below 198 microns per cubic meter, or even up to 290 depending on which monitor one tracks! That is over 20 times more than the “acceptable” exposure of PM 2.5 of 10-15 microns per cubic meter or less deemed ok for humans by the World Health Organization (WHO).
We have become so used to the horrifically polluted, smog-filled days, month after month from October to February, that when we see anything that seems remotely normal and “clear”, we fool ourselves into thinking the problem has also cleared. That somehow, the bad air, full of noxious gases and deadly PM 2.5 has miraculously blown away.
Well, perhaps some of it has, but definitely not all. It’s the same kind of wishful thinking that has us believing that exposure to pollution builds our immunity or that pranayama and yoga asanas will release the toxins from pollution in our bodies. All untrue and recklessly misleading. I am shocked when time and again I see leading health organizations, doctors and RWA’s make these claims. There is no science to support this. Exposure to air pollution kills in the long term, and creates health problems in the short term.
Air pollution is undoubtedly the major health and environmental issue of our time. It is not only a Delhi issue, but a national emergency. The World Health Organization’s 2014 study of 1,600 cities across 91 countries found 13 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in India; and six of the remaining seven are in our backyard (Pakistan and Bangladesh). Honors no one would desire or hold with pride.
Here in Delhi, talk of air pollution finally gained some ground this past winter. The media covered the problem extensively. Politicians tossed around ideas, new committees were formed, even as we experimented with odd/even schemes for some vehicles.
It’s a start - but there is so much more to be done. Recognition, awareness and education: three important areas, along with long term institutional action in our beautiful capital and beyond.
According to a recent study,PM 2.5 in Delhi is generated from a fragmented mix of contributing factors: Waste burning is 27.5% ; industries add another 13% and diesel gensets contribute 14.6%. Transport certainly does play a large role contributing 22.7% of PM 2.5 generation. As a citizen, I wonder where and how we are addressing each of these areas in order to effectively lower air pollution in New Delhi? In the past year, we’ve only heard of limited vehicle restrictions with odd/even for mere weeks, but no longer term plan has emerged.
Even more worrying is the lack of conversation around our other 12 most polluted cities? What of Patna, Gwalior, Raipur, Ahmedabad, Lucknow, Firozabad, Kanpur, Amritsar, Ludhiana, Allahabad, Agra and Khanna? What of the millions of people who live in these cities? They remain as invisible as the air pollution will seem to so many Delhi residents this summer as they remark on the beautiful clear skies.
So as we enter the summer season, let us remember the problem of air pollution has not gone
away. It hides in the shadows, less visible, but very much still there.
Tina Chadha is a founding member of Care For Air. In 2009, she relocated to New Delhi, India. Within her own family, she has felt the impact of India’s air pollution problem. She believes the air we breathe is the ultimate democratizer and that clean air must be accessible to all.
Spring has sprung. Lodhi Garden is grinning with flowers and bees. And along with the new leaves budding from trees and tender shoots sprouting from the earth, spreading a green veil over dusty Delhi, there are falling leaves. Everywhere. Simply everywhere. Each road, neighborhood, garden and alley has that conspicuous mound of fallen leaves, swept up by a conscientious muncipal worker (an oxymoron, but never mind!).
Delhi residents can take pride in the city being among the greenest metros in the country (there's so little we can take pride in, that this is precious indeed!), but the downside is these mounds leaves that no one knows what to do with. If I got paid for every time I've seen these leaves being set on fire by gardeners, muncipal workers, I would be rich. But instead, I'm poorer, at least in health, as the smoke from the burning cause the PM2.5 levels of particulate matter to rise sharply, adding to the already high levels that Delhi air comprises of, contributed by other sources like vehicular and thermal power emissions, brick kilns and regular trash, biomass and crop burning. What is extra frustrating is that unlike the other sources, over which we have even lesser control, burning of leaves, at least those in our own gardens or neighborhood is definitely something we can actively change. If we had the time and the inclination.
I have the latter, but like most of us, its the former, super-precious resource of time to research the solution to composting leaves that I've been struggling with.
When I lived in California, composting and mulching were key to garden health and I even recall taking a weekend composting class at the local community gardens, an emerald oasis in the concrete suburbia of a small West Coast town, on one side of a road named – what else! - Embarcadero. Suburban farmers tried to grow organic lettuce and tomatoes and learnt the benefits of vermicomposting, breathing in clean air as they dug, watered, hoed, sprinkled and shovelled.
When I moved back to New Delhi, I looked for materials and advice on composting - and drew a complete blank. There were one-off classes on composting for terrace and kitchen garden farmers, some vague literature on urban farming, but nothing substantial. Until I found The Daily Dump, where leaf composting was one piece of the larger solution around recycling and waste management.
But it was another two years before I would find myself drawn again and again to their composting solutions as the simplest and best. And it would be another year before I would get to touch their eco-friendly, mostly terracotta products – at my daughter's new school! - where it all came together.
So here's something I've been researching – because I feel that telling people not to burn leaves or biomass, without offering them an alternative isn't really very effective. Or very fair. You come off sounding like a prescriptive, faintly insolent, psuedo-knowledgeable, semi-paranoid I'm-better-than-you sort of clueless person. And so, I'd like to share with everyone reading this post why I've been recommending leaf composting through The Daily Dump, a Bangalore-based design-led company which aims to reduce waste, improve material recovery and enable better livelihoods through voluntary collective action of urban citizens in an organic and enabling manner.
I like that the Dump helps imagine and re-engineer alternative scenarios that can wholistically and mindfully change behaviour for decentralised waste management in homes, communities, offices and public spaces. I like that their videos are simple and easy to follow. I like that it was started by a woman. I like that that Bangalore-based woman's elderly father was manning her stall at a Delhi school supporting his daughter and the environment at the same time. What was there not to like? Their range of segregation products, composters, books and services reflects their mission to enable all to harm less – and treats waste as a resource.
So if you're serious about your (and your children's) lungs and cognitive function and want to do your drop-in-the-ocean bit to bring down PM2.5 levels, at least in your own vicinity, here's what you need to do.
Go to the Daily Dump website, (http://www.dailydump.org) check out their leaf composting video, if you like its simplicity and feel you can do it, order one – or several (for your neighborhood) from one of the 70 partners they have all over India (there are multiple outlets in Delhi and Gurgaon) and begin. Now. Or this weekend. Or by the end of this month. But soon. Then tell others about it. Maybe convince your school to adopt it. Or your Residents Welfare Association.
And if you have any other options for leaf disposal that you're already using and that have worked well for you – please share! Write to us at careforair.org or just simply comment on this blog post.
We are crowdsourcing simple, workable solutions to begin our own journeys towards reducing PM levels in the cities we live and breathe in. Join us.
Jyoti Pande Lavakare
Jyoti Pande Lavakare is an independent columnist, financial journalist and writer who has lived and worked in Britain, the United States and India, writing for international and Indian publications. In a past life, she produced youth programs for radio and television and her children's fiction appeared in Hachette anthologies. She has a Masters in Economics and currently lives in New Delhi with her husband, teens and a wilting kitchen garden.
One keeps seeing ads in newspapers and magazines about the noxious air that we are breathing indoors and how our indoor air is actually 10 times worse than outdoor air and hence we MUST buy an air purifier to breathe cleaner air. Lets not get carried away with this marketing and try to understand if our indoor air really is as bad as it is made out to be.
To understand air quality, we are going to break it up into:.
Gases and Odour: Some of the pollutants from this next category of pollutants are typically what are much higher indoors versus outdoors – sometimes as much as 10 times higher - they are CO2 and VOC’s. SO2, NO2 and O3 are typically higher outdoors. But do air purifiers really address CO2 and VOC’s? No. They do NOT. No air purifier in the world today is capable of reducing or removing CO2. Some of them reduce VOC’s marginally, but truly do NOT do much to these carcinogenic gases – like formaldehyde, benzene, acetone, etc. Hence, one MUST air out their rooms in order to get rid of these toxic gases from the air. So the main claim of indoor air being 10 times worse that outdoors is not even addressed adequately by an air purifier.
Microbiological pollutants: These pollutants are typically marginally higher indoors versus outdoors. And a lot of technologies aim at removing these pollutants from the air – UV, negative ionizers, ozonisers, photo catalytic oxidation, etc. However, one must be extremely cautious about these technologies, as they can produce Ozone as a by-product and end up hurting one in the long run as prolonged exposure to even mild levels of Ozone is very harmful for health. Also, if one eliminates all the bacteria and virus in indoor spaces and makes it sterile, it may not be so good, as living in a sterile environment ALL the time can brings down immunity and one may fall ill if exposed to any bacteria, virus or mold.
But removing the first 2 pollutants (particulate matter and harmful gases) is actually good for us and improves our immunity. If one thinks that by breathing air polluted with PM and gases one is becoming immune and stronger, then one should encourage their children to smoke a packet of cigarettes every day. Now that would be something.
Removing PM2.5 and odor can actually help reduce stress on the lungs and help one breathe better and reduce the symptoms of wheezing and asthma. Hence an air purifier may actually be a good thing – but NOT because our indoor air is 10 times worse than the outdoors.
Barun Aggarwal is an entrepreneur and MBA with multi-continent experience. He has actively engaged in campaigns around climate crisis issues relating to air quality, water conservation, and energy efficiency. Barun founded Breathe Easy Consultants to help improve indoor air quality and is actively engaged with The Climate Project Foundation (the Indian branch of The Climate Reality Project founded by Nobel Laureate Al Gore).
Tell us your personal stories on how you battle air pollution in your daily life and in your community.