Inhale or check poison: Stark choice

Hiranmay Karlekar
Pollution levels were expected to go up in most parts of India after Diwali. System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (Safar) had predicted that the situation would be worse than in 2014 and 2015 because of adverse meteorological factors like slow wind speed and moisture in the air which hinder the dispersal of suspended pollutants. Nevertheless, the actual levels prevailing may have surprised even those who had made bleak predictions. The statistics are alarming. According to the Central Pollution Control Board, the presence of PM (Particulate Matter) 2.5 in Delhi went up to 999 per cubic metre of air in the US Embassy area in Chanakyapuri and 702 in Anand Vihar. In RK Puram, the level of PM2.5 went up to 643 microgrammes, which is almost 10 times the safe limit of 60 microgrammes per cubic metre, while the presence of PM10 stood at 999 microgrammes per cubic metre, which is nearly 10 times higher than the safe limit of 100 microgrammes. The figure for PM2.5 was 494 in Mumbai, and a maximum of 400 in Pune’s Shivajinagar, where that of PM10 was 268. The level of PM2.5 was 999 in Ahmedabad, 834 in Lucknow and 378 in Kolkata. The seriousness of what all this means becomes clear on recalling its impact on people and public health. PM10, which is 10 micrometres or less in diameter, enters the small sacks in lungs and accumulates there, affecting the upper respiratory tract from the nose to the windpipe. PM2.5, which are 2.5 micrometre of less in diameter, enter the lungs and affect the lower respiratory system. The consequences in terms of health can vary from irritation of the eyes, nose and throat to coughing, a feeling of tightness in the chest, shortness of breath and reduced lung function. These can also include asthma attacks, irregular heartbeats and heart attacks. Not surprisingly, air pollution is now the leading environmental causes of premature death. According to the World Health Organisation, it causes approximately seven million premature deaths every year. The environmental impact is severe. The CO2 emissions are a major cause of climate change, which is also a consequence of air pollutants affecting incoming sunlight. The smog that descended on Delhi and many parts of northern India after Diwali provides a striking example of what this means. Clearly, something drastic needs to be done. While a ban on crackers may not be possible, severe restrictions on their sale should be. One needs a comprehensive plan to cope with the steep rise in post-Diwali pollution levels not only in Delhi but all over India. This in turn has to be a part of a wider plan to curb pollution throughout the country. Pollution spreads. The impurities discharged into the air by factories in Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh float into the Delhi sky along with the smoke rising from fields set on fire by farmers after harvesting crops in Haryana and Punjab. Besides, while pollution peaks to alarmingly high levels during Diwali, it remains at unacceptable levels in many parts of the country throughout the year.
One needs to be particularly careful about the emission of black carbon or soot and ground level Ozone. The former is caused by the burning of carbon in factories and vehicles using fossil fuel, besides diesel generators, brick kilns and stoves burning dung. Ground-level ozone is produced by the emission of methane gas, the natural sources of which are wetlands, termites and oceans. The most important human sources are the production, transportation and use of fossil fuels with landfills and livestock farming also making a contribution. Retiring old vehicles, filtering exhausts, getting people better stoves and cleaner fuel to burn in them, stopping widespread burning of agricultural waste, and modernising kilns and coking ovens, will help-provided adequate action is taken.
Before Diwali, the Delhi Government had banned excessively polluting Chinese crackers. It carried out several raids to ensure compliance. Yet a very large number of these continued to be on sale.

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