At a recent EcoHour webinar organized by Altech Foundation, Barun Aggarwal, CEO BreatheEasyLabs, New Delhi, listed five solutions that can help Delhi manage its grossly polluted air. He goes beyond Delhi to suggest more measures for cleaner air across India. For a full version of the chat please visit responcities.org
Our children have pretty well forgotten what a starry night, you said ruefully. What are war steps you think the government and individuals could take?
Unfortunately, clean air is a policy and enforcement issue that mostly lies in the hands of the government. As citizens we can create awareness, demand for change from our government. But the actual implementation and enforcement has to come from the government. The government can follow a clear long term plan towards clean air:
- Advanced public transportation systems – where everyone is comfortable, everyone is safe, is timely and first/last mile connectivity issues are taken into consideration. Then, increase cost of ownership of private vehicles (like Singapore).
- Get Euro VI fuel into all of India at the earliest. Remove subsidies on Diesel. Make diesel more expensive than petrol – as it should be. Move towards all EV fleet for the country. This would entail not protectionism of Indian industry, but lowering (or eliminating) import duties on electric and hybrid vehicles to encourage healthy competition. This will take the emissions from the tail pipe to the smokestack of our coal fired power plants where it can be controlled. Over time, move our coal fired power plants to cleaner fuels and even solar, wind and hydro power.
- Create a holistic waste management system. Currently, we have a “waste transportation” strategy in place. We transport it from one place to the other till it gets to the landfill and eventually burned. We need to work very hard on this or we will be dying under the pile of our own rubbish. Literally, this has happened in Delhi recently where a few people died when a section of waste from one of the largest landfills (that looks more like a mountain – collapsed)
- Create economic viable alternatives for the farmers to stop stubble burning – a practice across Northern India.
- Upgrade the brick kilns and the small scale industry kilns in Delhi to better technology.
What are immediate measures an individual can take to remain within air-safe zones — at home, at office?
One must try and minimize their exposure to particulate matter at all times. Installing a good quality HEPA filter based air purifier in a bedroom and any other space where one spends more time can be very useful to mitigating some of the risks associated with air pollution related disease.
With 20,000 breaths that we intake every day, why do you see so much disregard of air safety norms?
Air pollution is somewhat invisible and only on extremely polluted days can one see the pollution in parts of India. The decibel levels about clean air and policy action go up during these few “high exposure days” when everyone points fingers at the other to get things right. However, no long term measures are adopted to fix this issue. As Indians, we don’t even have a culture to wear a mask on polluted days as compared to our neighbors in East Asia. A part of the problem is low levels of awareness about the problem and the other is a somewhat “I give up” response as most people don’t know what o do about the problem.
It is startling to know that nature has made our lungs have 70% greater capacity than the human system needs. Yet the threat of the lungs packing up when it reaches 70% of carbon clog is so high today…
Nature has given us two of nearly every part in our body (with the exception of the heart and the tongue). Even the lungs come in a pair and we have 70% extra capacity. And many at time, the symptoms of air pollution damage to our lungs do NOT show up until 70% of our lungs are damaged. And given we are exposed to such HIGH levels of pollutants, the risk of this damage happening early in life is extremely high.
The WHO has said that our average annual exposure to fine Particulate Matter (PM2.5) should be less than 10 micrograms per cubic meter of air. The numbers in many parts of India get to 30-40 times this and for a few days in a year get to 100 times this exposure limit also. This is equivalent to smoking 40-100 cigarettes a day.
The cost of not doing is far higher than the cost of positive measures to mitigate, you say. How do we measure this?
The largest cause of death in India is attributed to air pollution. Some statistics show that the average life span in India is reduced by as much as 7 years due to air pollution related death. The economic loss to the exchequer for loss of direct and indirect taxes for 7 years for the population of the country would be tremendous. Sickness due to air pollution related diseases would be even larger. The cost of healthcare to handle this is staggering. The cost of mitigation would be a fraction compared to these numbers.
Air-conditioning has brought comfort but has raised other challenges on internal air quality in offices and homes. What are those?
Most split air conditioning systems do NOT bring in any air from the outside. They only recirculate the air inside the room and cool (or heat) the air. Hence, the CO2 and VOC levels inside a closed room tend to go up after occupancy in air conditioned spaces. High CO2 exposure leads to headaches, stuffiness and even nausea. Recent Harvard studies (Dr Joe Allen’s COGfx study) show that even moderately elevated levels of CO2 has a large impact on human cognitive function. Test scores of people were dramatically impacted when exposed to moderate levels of CO2.
In your concern to share these anxieties you co-founded Care For Air? What’s impact you’ve managed to make at this non-profit?
At Care for Air, we have a three pronged strategy – Awareness, Advocacy and Change. We speak to students in at least 2 schools and doctors in hospitals every month to create awareness about air pollution. We have Supreme Court attorneys as founding members and we have filed PIL’s in the Supreme Court for our right to breathe. And we take on small projects where we can implement change and improve air quality for the citizens of the country.