India’s Air Pollution Crisis: How Big it is and What can be done?

By: Barun Aggarwal

In India, air pollution causes at least one million premature deaths among adults in a year. In Delhi, the potential of life lost due to air pollution is estimated to be 3 to 6 years per person. A large number of the world’s most polluted cities are in India. Our ranking in the Air Quality Index has already dipped to hazardous levels. Toxic air affects not just our respiratory system but almost every organ in our body. 

Image Source: PTI

Prolonged exposure to atmospheric and indoor air pollution affects our cognitive abilities, it can result in the demineralization of bones, kidney calcification, and may lead to severe chronic illnesses like asthma, cardiac issues, and cancer.

Our average daily intake of water is just about 3 to 5 liters a day and we are very much concerned about the purity of the mineral content of the water. In contrast, we consume 13,000 liters of air every day but there is a total lack of awareness about ways and means to improve the air quality.

Indoor pollution as dangerous as outdoor pollution

There are about 13 variables – including vehicular emission – that contribute to atmospheric air pollution. But air pollution is not an outdoor problem alone. Indoor air pollution is a silent killer. We spend about 80-90% of our time indoors but we have no idea how good the air we breathe indoors is. 

Three major polluters of indoor air are carbon dioxide (CO 2 ), Total Volatile Organic Compounds (TVOCs), a set of toxic chemical compounds, and ultrafine particles – technically known as PM 2.5, particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less.

CO 2 is a natural byproduct of our body’s metabolic function. However, TVOCs are emitted as gases from certain solids and liquids such as floor cleaners, mosquito repellants, paints, varnishes, vinyl flooring, dry cleaners, deodorants, room fresheners, and nail polish removers, etc. and the sources of particulate matter are mostly external but some also internal such as incense burning, mosquito repellant, etc.

In 2018-19, we conducted a study involving real-time monitoring of air quality in about 400 homes in Delhi and NCR. The results were alarming. While the CO 2 concentration of 1000 PPM indoors is considered high, it was hovering at 2500-2800 PPM in many houses at night. The level of TVOCs was as high as 1000 ug/m 3 – the safe limit is 200 ug/m 3. The level of PM 2.5 was as high as 390 ug/m3, several times higher than the prescribed level of 10 ug/m3.

Studies such as these conducted in other Indian cities show that indoor and outdoor air pollution are insanely high, and the country is facing a large-scale air quality crisis.

There is a need for both a policy push and citizen movement to clean our air indoors and outdoors.

At the policy level, we must obviously aim for a reduction in vehicular pollution, which accounts for about 20-25% of air pollution outdoors. 

The factors that contribute to vehicular pollution are three: 1) the number of vehicles on the roads, 2) the number of kilometers driven by each vehicle per day, and 3) the emissions per KM per vehicle.

To reduce the vehicle population, we must make it more and more difficult for people to own one. Tax on automobiles should be several times more than the existing rates. The public transportation infrastructure should be made world-class, safe and reliable. There should be no taxes on Electric Vehicles. To bring down emissions per vehicle, we must make BS-VI fuel available all over India. 

Traditionally, the regulatory focus is centered only on ambient air pollution, while indoor air pollution goes unnoticed. We should have building regulations that promote clean air standards. 

The flow of fresh air should be made a part and parcel of the design of HVAC in commercial and residential buildings. Well, designed buildings can go a long way to reducing indoor air pollution.

What can citizens do?

As citizens, we should avoid private transportation as much as possible. We should switch to emission-free electric vehicles. As for improving indoor air quality, we can raise indoor plants like Money Plant, Sansevieria and Areca Palm that have the properties of purifying indoor air.

We should invest in effective portable and centralized solutions available in the market to monitor, report, and reduce the levels of indoor air pollution. We should also limit the usage of chemicals such as floor cleaners, mosquito repellants, paints, varnishes, vinyl flooring, dry cleaners, deodorants, room fresheners, nail polish removers, etc..

The threshold values of pollutants in atmospheric and indoor air in India have already been exceeded by many times. If our governments and we the citizens do not act on a war footing, the air pollution crisis can start to take a toll on our health, economy, and environment that will be too heavy to bear.

(Barun Aggrawal is the CEO, BreatheEasy Consultants Pvt Ltd – a full-service Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) solution provider and an author of a book – How to Grow Fresh Air, published by Juggernaut Books.)

(The views expressed in the article are the author’s own. Let Me Breathe neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

Barun Aggarwal

Barun Aggarwal

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