Air Pollution – Capital Horror

I dunked my bourbon into the chai as I flipped through the newspaper and stumbled upon page 5 to read about the Delhi’s most polluted day of the year! It said that Delhi’s pollution standards had fallen from poor to severe raising an extremely unpleasant question early during the day -  how exactly do we guard ourselves from this rampant pollution situation that’s stifling our capital?!

Surprisingly, my mentor Sanchita asked me to attend a program on ‘Air Pollution: How to safeguard your health’ at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi. A team of nine highly qualified professionals: Dr. M.C. Misra, Dr. Randeep Guleria, Dr. S.K. Kabra, Dr. NIitish Naik, Dr. J.S. Tityal, Dr. Neerja Bhatia, Ms. (Dr.) Sunita Narain, Dr. Lalit Kumar and Dr. K. Madan she said were the panellists for the Public Lecture and Panel Discussion.

The event began with  Dr. M.C. Misra and Dr. Randeep Guleria familiarizing the audience with the magnitude of air pollution these days and the state of emergency that air pollution has got us in. I was aghast to know that there has been a thirty per cent increase in cases related to respiratory and cardiac  problems reported at AIIMS  in the past couple of years.

Dr. S.K. Kabra, Dr. Nitish Naik, Dr. J.S. Tityal and Dr. Neerja Bhatia, were other featured speakers, who inspired the audience by taking charge of  their specialised fields and emphasising upon the much adverse  impact of air pollution on children and pregnant women. It was shocking to know that the level of air pollution is same for seemingly cleaner places as that for congested or polluted streets. This apparently is because the NOx level of those places are higher due to which the Ground Level Ozone is higher.

However, I heaved a sigh of relief when Dr. Nitish NaiK mentioned that this dreadful situation is reversible. Preventive actions and community measures were highlighted at length during the lecture. Dr Lalit Kumar, also spoke of measures such as drinking adequate amount of water and consuming enough  vitamin C and antioxidants for personal safeguard. He also suggested that using bicycles, improving forest cover and planting trees such as Peepal, were some of the long term solutions to combat air pollution.

Ms. (Dr.) Sunita Narain, DG, C.S.E., spoke of how CNG had created leap for Delhi to EURO 4 standard fuel but due to increase in vehicles, the solution that CNG had presented ten years ago is no longer the only  viable measure and there is a need to come up with solutions that address the issue of air pollution at a grass root level. She also reminded the audience that making technological improvements in the present combustion techniques to increase fuel efficiency is not a long term solution. This she elaborated was due to the fact that to achieve higher efficiency, ignition temperature of the fuel is increased which may lead to decrease in size of exhaust particles, thereby making the exhaust appear somewhat cleaner, but it also leads to increase in NOx emissions. And, thus, the issue of curbing air pollution is not addressed. She also came up with ‘3 Big’ solutions:

  1. EURO 4 & EURO 6 fuel standards to be applied all over the country so that trucks, which are one of the biggest polluters cannot pollute a city. There should also be a nation-wide exercise to research upon fuel and new technologies.
  2. Ban on diesel vehicles. The coal based power plants in and around Delhi (such as Badarpur) to be closed and natural gas supply to gas power plants to be reinstated (such as Bawana gas plant which is the cleanest of its kind in the country).
  3. Public transport facilities to be fortified which could curb the rampant numbers of private vehicles plying in city.

She also mentioned that citizens of Delhi should support the odd-even policy, compromising a little on their travel comforts for a few days to focus on a bigger picture. She appealed that even if the scheme turns out to be unsuccessful, there could still be an inherent benefit of creating pressure on the government to improve sustainable and clean public transport.

A rather appalled lady from the audience asked if there were any blood test facility that could detect the inflammation caused in the RBCs to act as a warning sign of overexposure to air pollution. Dr. Randeep Guleria replied assuring that  studies are being conducted to create buttons or patches which could be stuck to a person’s clothes and their discolouration would indicate the level of exposure to air pollution.

The program struck a chord with the entire audience and there was a sense of acknowledgement across the auditorium  that a temporary escape would not suffice and the root cause needs to be eliminated for a secure tomorrow - ‘Air filters aren't a solution,  we must fight the war against pollution’.