Be careful while breathing Delhi’s stifled festive air

By Pallavi Aman Singh

New Delhi, Nov 12 (ANI): Hold thy breath! This year, the weeklong, family-oriented celebration of Diwali brought joy and happiness for everyone, but at a price.

Festivity in India is an eventful affair and for Diwali, which is certainly the biggest and the brightest of all Hindu festivals, celebration begins at least a week before. Houses are cleaned out, decorative lamps are lit, relatives reunite and gifts are exchanged.

Two practices define Diwali – lighting earthen lamps all over the house and bursting firecrackers, but with this festival, comes a package of air and noise pollution, which degrades our environment further, and scattered ashes on the streets, which gives the city a dusty and bad look.

Last year, on Diwali, the PM2.5 levels in Pitampura, Janakpuri and Pragati Maidan were 678, 510 and 323 micrograms per cubic metre respectively, according to a report of the Central Pollution Control Board.

Despite the meteorological department sounding a note of caution regarding the severity of bursting firecrackers, Delhi’s air quality deteriorated alarmingly this Diwali, with the pollution levels spiking as much as 23 times higher than normal in arguably the most polluted spot of the city.

According to real time ambient air quality data of the Delhi Pollution Control Committee, the Respirable Suspended Particulate Matter (RSPM), which directly affects breathing, has gone up by over 23 times from the national ambiance air quality standard at Anand Vihar. At 11pm, PM10 was recorded at 2,308 microgram per cubic meter (mpcm) while the prescribed standard is 100mpcm. PM2.5, for which the prescribed standard is 60mpcm, also touched an alarming high at 619mpcm at midnight in this heavily polluted area in East Delhi.

At RK Puram, PM10 was at its peak at 1am at 1,333mpcm, while PM2.5 touched 985mpcm at 9.20pm. In Punjabi Bagh, the PM2.5 was at its peak at 1am and was recorded at 638mpcm, while PM10 was recorded as 1,033mpcm highest also at 1am. However, according to the DPCC air quality index, a downward trend was witnessed since 2am across the monitoring stations.

According to readings of the System of Air quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), which is jointly run by the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology and India Meteorological Department, Delhi University was the most polluted spot in the city with PM2.5 touching an average of 430 mg per cubic metre, which is a ‘severe’ reading, and the air quality here is expected to deteriorate further and clock up to 485 in the next 24 hours.

The air quality at other SAFAR monitoring stations in Pusa (PM10: 263), Lodi Road (PM10: 250), Noida (PM2.5: 298), Mathura Road (PM10: 297), Aya Nagar (PM10: 268), Dhirpur (PM10: 289), Airport (T3) (PM2.5: 351), Pitampura (PM2.5: 381) and Gurgaon (PM2.5: 300) oscillated between ‘poor’ and ‘very poor’. However, at Airport (T3) and Pitampura, the air quality is expected to deteriorate further and will become more ‘severe’, SAFAR forecasts say.

Every year, the pollution figures start to increase around 6pm on the day of Diwali, tend to peak between 10pm and midnight and remain unhealthy till about 6am the next day.

It’s not that Delhiites aren’t aware of the threat of air pollution and relevant precautionary measures to be taken to fight this menace. They know what’s killing the Earth, but they find going cracker-free during Diwali a task.

Speaking on the condition, a Diwali enthusiast told ANI “For the reason that Diwali only comes once a year, so everyone is really excited, specially kids. I think for kids, it’s ok, but the majors who are sensible enough to know the consequences of the pollution should celebrate Diwali with lights and all because it’s a festival of lights.”

He added “Delhi is said to be one of the most polluted cities in the world, so for that reason also we have to control the pollution and the emissions. Somehow I feel that the Government needs to ban the crackers and all.”

Another person, Tarun, said: “Everyone is aware about the pollution caused by crackers. Still, along with having fun, we are trying to reduce noise pollution and smoke pollution. We want to burst crackers, but on the other hand we are trying to burst fewer crackers. According to me, Diwali can become a pollution free festival. I don’t think anyone will burst crackers in the next 3-4 years.”

However, right from celebrities to small kids, many are going green by not bursting crackers and celebrating Diwali with just sweets and light.

Shubham, who supported pollution-free Diwali, said: “I did not burst crackers because they generate a lot of pollution and even my parents have asked me not to burst crackers. I had gone to my relative’s place and had a lot of fun there.”

A University of Surrey study, published in the journal Atmospheric Environment, recently assessed how Delhi’s landscape, weather, energy consumption culture and growing urban population combines to elevate concentrations of air pollutants, including ultrafine particles, the most harmful to human health.

Researcher Prashant Kumar noted, “Air pollution has been placed in the top ten health risks faced by human beings globally. Delhi has the dubious accolade of being regularly cited as the most polluted city in the world, with air pollution causing thousands of excess deaths in a year in this growing megacity.”

He added, “Whilst it might be easy to blame this on increased use of vehicles, industrial production or a growing population, the truth is that Delhi is a toxic pollutant punchbowl with myriad ingredients, all which need addressing in the round.”

Delhi is one of the largest population centres in the world. Classed as the world’s fifth ‘megacity’, it has a population of 25.8 million, which continues to grow. Delhi has limited avenues for flushing polluted air out of the city. Coupled with Delhi’s densely packed architecture and varying building heights, the ‘breathability’ of the city is inhibited by its weather conditions. The city’s decreasing temperature (attributed to the effects of pollution) draws outside polluted air into the city centre, whilst windy, dusty conditions during summer exacerbate this problem.

Of the world’s top 20 polluted cities, 13 are in India, according to the December 2014 report of World Health Organization (WHO). Interestingly, Delhi tops the chart and has six times the levels of airborne particulate matter than are considered safe.

The WHO also found that India has the world’s highest rate of death from respiratory disease, with 159 per 100,000 in 2012, about 10 times that of Italy, five times that of the UK and twice that of China. One study by the Kolkata-based Chittaranjan National Cancer Institute (CNCI) found that half of Delhi’s 4.4 million schoolchildren would never recover full lung capacity.

If a recent study conducted by researchers in Utah in the US is to be believed, poor-air-quality days can lead to an increased chance of heart attack for patients with heart diseases. The toxic air in Delhi is also the source of increasing cases of acute respiratory diseases, with the National Health Profile reporting 3.5 million cases the previous year.

Both short and long-term exposure to air pollutants has been associated to health impacts. More severe impacts affect people who are already ill. Children, the elderly and poor people are more susceptible.

Pollutants of major public health concern include particulate matter, carbon monoxide, ozone, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide. Outdoor and indoor air pollution cause respiratory and other diseases which can be fatal, notes WHO.

So, let’s hope for a pollution-free Diwali next year. (ANI)

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