The war on smog

Can one of the world’s most air-pol­luted cities learn to breathe again?

The Guardian Weekly - - Front page - Michael Safi Delhi

As reg­u­lar as clock­work, the ap­proach of win­ter in Delhi brings steadily wors­en­ing pol­lu­tion lev­els in the city. It also her­alds elab­o­rate, some­times hare-brained schemes to fix the prob­lem. Like clock­work, each win­ter in Delhi brings with it a blan­ket of smog that set­tles over the city, caus­ing huge health prob­lems.

Last year the In­dian cap­i­tal tried show­er­ing the city with wa­ter from he­li­copters, but the air­craft were un­able to fly in smog. When au­thor­i­ties used “smog can­nons” to blast pol­luted streets with mist, air qual­ity in those ar­eas de­clined.

This month, en­vi­ron­men­tal of­fi­cials in the city will roll out the lat­est weapon in their war on pol­lu­tion: more than 50 out­door air pu­ri­fiers at in­ter­sec­tions on ma­jor roads. Tests in Mum­bai showed the de­vices cut air pol­lu­tion by about one-third, but only in the sur­round­ing 20 me­tres. The units in Delhi will be more pow­er­ful, but ex­perts are scep­ti­cal.

“It is like try­ing to air-con­di­tion a room with the roof off,” says Alistair Lewis, a pro­fes­sor of at­mo­spheric chem­istry at the Univer­sity of York. “There is very lit­tle ev­i­dence they make a dif­fer­ence.”

The out­door pu­ri­fiers are “a dis­trac­tion”, says An­u­mita Roy­chowd­hury, of the Delhi-based cen­tre for sci­ence and en­vi­ron­ment. “We are say­ing, fo­cus on the real ac­tion of cut­ting pol­lu­tion at the source.” Qui­etly, Delhi is do­ing just that, she says. In the past two years, cen­tral and state gov­ern­ments, as well as the supreme court, have pushed through poli­cies to curb the dust, fumes and car­cino­genic smoke that blan­kets the city year-round and grows more acute dur­ing win­ter months. No­body be­lieves the air qual­ity this win­ter will be good, but it could be bet­ter than the past two years – the worst on record.

Re­sults are al­ready be­ing seen, of­fi­cials say. Mon­i­tor­ing sta­tions show this year is cleaner so far than the past two. Last year’s win­ter was also marginally bet­ter than 2016’s, thanks to a graded-ac­tion plan that grad­u­ally bans sources of pol­lu­tion such as coalpower plants and build­ing ac­tiv­ity as the air qual­ity de­clines. “Be­cause these things hap­pened, the num­ber of days with se­vere pol­lu­tion lev­els were less than the pre­vi­ous win­ter,” Roy­chowd­hury says.

At a mon­i­tor­ing sta­tion in the heart of Delhi’s old city, re­searchers are grap­pling with just how deadly the at­mos­phere has be­come. The fa­cil­ity is one of three in In­dia that can mea­sure pol­lu­tion par­ti­cles as small as 1 mi­crome­tre – more than a hun­dred times thin­ner than a strand of hu­man hair.

“These are the finest par­ti­cles we are in­hal­ing and can get deep in­side the lungs,” says Gufran Beig, a joint di­rec­tor at the In­dian in­sti­tute of trop­i­cal me­te­o­rol­ogy, who over­sees re­search at the sta­tions.

The pol­lu­tants, la­belled PM1, are so poorly un­der­stood that the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion does not know how much ex­po­sure, if any, is safe. But the pol­lu­tants are likely from the most toxic sources: they are es­pe­cially thick near traf­fic or heavy in­dus­try.

The sta­tions are al­ready chang­ing the way smog in In­dia is un­der­stood. Re­search has re­vealed the pol­lu­tion in Mum­bai, though less dense than in Delhi, con­tains more PM1 par­ti­cles.

The air in the fi­nan­cial hub may be dead­lier than pre­vi­ously known.

“Although the mass con­cen­tra­tion of pol­lu­tants in Mum­bai is less com­pared to Delhi, the tox­i­c­ity is more,” Beig says.

Sharp spikes in Delhi’s pol­lu­tion of­ten come from dust storms from the Gulf. But the city also ex­udes ex­tra­or­di­nary quan­ti­ties of car ex­haust, con­struc­tion dust and smoke, es­pe­cially dur­ing the Hindu fes­ti­val of Di­wali, when mil­lions of fire­crack­ers can be ex­ploded in a sin­gle night.

A raft of poli­cies have been im­ple­mented in the past year to plug these pol­lu­tion sources. Emis­sions stan­dards for cars are be­ing tight­ened more quickly. Im­ports of pet coke, a dirty fuel the US was ac­cused of dump­ing in In­dia, have been banned. The city’s last ther­mal coal power plant will be per­ma­nently shut next month.

As is of­ten the case in In­dia, ac­tu­ally im­ple­ment­ing the new poli­cies will be a chal­lenge. But they give the city a path for­ward, Roy­chowd­hury says. “There is no rea­son why we can’t bend the curve, if these things take off.”

As the win­ter ap­proaches and the air qual­ity falls, those who can af­ford to do so are in­vest­ing heav­ily in air pu­ri­fiers. The Amer­i­can Em­bassy School, in the city’s leafy diplo­matic en­clave, has spent more than $1m in the past four years on nearly 60 air pu­rifi­ca­tion units on its cam­pus.

“We can get the air down to a level you could use in a hos­pi­tal op­er­at­ing room,” says Jim Laney, the school’s di­rec­tor.

Nearly 150 air mon­i­tors are ar­rayed through­out the school and can warn when the air qual­ity sud­denly drops. “So if a teacher leaves a door open, we will see a spike in air qual­ity and we can go and in­ves­ti­gate it,” he says.

The school has not been able to com­pletely in­su­late stu­dents from the city around them.

“We are restricted in, for ex­am­ple, putting a bub­ble over a soc­cer field or play­ground un­der the New Delhi mu­nic­i­pal coun­cil’s reg­u­la­tions,” Laney says.

For the Queen Mary’s school, as for the vast ma­jor­ity of prop­er­ties in Delhi, air pu­ri­fiers are out of reach fi­nan­cially. When smog wors­ens, some chil­dren wear masks in class. Lit­tle else can be done, ex­cept to hope the au­thor­i­ties make progress against poi­sonous air.

“We do our best to ed­u­cate them, but they are liv­ing in Delhi,” ex­plains Rachel Rao, a co­or­di­na­tor at the school. “They can only breathe the air around them.”


Clockwise, smog in Delhi; an anti-smog gun; a school protest at pol­lu­tion

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