Thursday, September 24, 2015

Bad Air in India

India is now home to 13 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world. India has the highest rate of death from respiratory disease in the world, according to the World Health Organisation. The rate was 159 per 100,000 in 2012, about 10 times that of Italy, five times that of the UK and twice that of China.

According to India’s National Health Profile 2015, there were almost 3.5m reported cases of acute respiratory infection (ARI) last year, a 140,000 increase on the previous year and a 30% increase since 2010. The number of ARI cases has risen steadily in India over the last 15 years, even when population growth is taken into account. In 2001, less than 2,000 cases per 100,000 people had an ARI. In 2012 the number was 2,600 per 100,000, statistics show.

The rise has occurred despite steady improvements in medical care and nutrition, as well as a shift away from using wood as fuel in rural areas. Together this has mitigated many factors long blamed for the high levels of respiratory diseases in India. Doctors are blaming the increasing severity of the problem on unprecedented decline in air quality across India.

One study found that half of Delhi’s 4.4 million schoolchildren would never recover full lung capacity. Campaigners point out that the focus on Delhi has distracted from problems elsewhere. Mumbai has pollution levels which, though lower than in Delhi, exceed safe limits set by the Indian government many times. Those limits are significantly higher than those set by international experts and western governments. In Ahmedabad, in the west, levels of PM2.5s peaked at eight times the WHO limit for a 24-hour average. In Lucknow, in the north, levels reached seven times the limit. Levels of CO2, nitrogen dioxide and ozone in less known cities have also regularly exceeded WHO guidelines by huge margins.

This summer, some reports suggested that Chennai experience worse pollution than anywhere else in India. Though the data has been challenged, it is clear that the levels of hazardous gases such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and ozone, as well as of deadly fine particulates, in the southern city have consistently breached the WHO’s maximum safe limit. “Some reports are alarmist but in general, for sure, parts of Chennai are definitely worse than Delhi,” said Shweta Narayan, an activist. The worst affected areas of Chennai, which has a population of around 4 million people, lie on its northern rim, where petrochemical works, car factories and coal-burning power stations exist close to residential areas. In July, levels of deadly PM2.5 particulates in the Manali neighbourhood were four times the WHO safe limit. These particulates lodge in the lungs and allow heavy metals to enter the bloodstream.

Pollution expert Raja worked for five years at the Californian Air Resources Board. The air in the US state, once infamous for its smoggy cities, is now cleaner than in decades, even though problems remain. “They have done an enormous amount … but it took 40 years. Here [in India] air pollution is probably going to be very severe for a couple of decades before it gets any better,” he said.

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