21 January, 2021

We, The People

Citizens must take active role in combating localised sources of air pollution. Examples from Mumbai show that every effort is important.

We, The People

In comparing sites of burning garbage or firecrackers, air pollution from garbage showed even higher immediate spikes than firecrackers. While this might not surprise, firecrackers are an acknowledged source of severe air pollution restricted for use by the National Green Tribunal and Supreme Court while informal garbage dumps surrounding Mumbai are not.

In Mumbai’s urbanised outskirts, Thane, Bhiwandi, Panvel and beyond, scattered heaps of mixed garbage burn as people walk casually past. We check Mumbai’s Air Quality Index (AQI) and note, with relief, that it is ‘Moderate’, far better than Delhi’s ‘Severe.’ Everyone knows that Mumbai’s pollution is washed away by sea breezes and this little bit can’t hurt. It’s the bigger things that count: vehicular and industrial pollution, we think.

With a low-cost hand-held air quality meter near burning roadside garbage, Awaaz Foundation measured local air pollution. Among the first citizens’ science initiatives of the Clean Air Collective, the findings were revealing: they rivalled those of Mumbai’s AQI in 2016 when Asia’s oldest and largest garbage dump, Deonar, burned thick smoke visible on NASA images from space. The Deonar dump continues to burn periodically in the years since and results are felt in worsened AQI of Mumbai, increased respiratory illness and allergies. Simultaneously, small roadside dumps also burn on a daily basis. They worsen local air quality and expose people locally to serious health hazards.

We demonstrated the importance of localised air pollution during Diwali in Mumbai: Areas such as Shivaji Park where firecrackers were used recorded an immediate spike to ‘severe’ category even as the overall AQI in Mumbai remained moderate. Pollution control boards and municipal corporations oversee firecracker and industrial pollution; none look at informal sources like burning garbage. In Bhiwandi, a many kilometres-long garbage dump containing mixed biomass and plastic recorded local air pollution levels in the ‘severe’ category, with particulate matter hundreds more than safe limits. Other burning garbage dumps along the Mumbai-Alibag road also recorded local pollution levels in the ‘severe’ category.

Along with organic biomass from households and agriculture, roadside garbage dumps contain a high volume of plastic. Burning plastic is particularly hazardous, releasing harmful chemicals like carbon monoxide, formaldehyde and arsenic which not only lead to respiratory disorders but also cancer, liver and immunity disorders, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT.)

Along with the number of particles, the size of particles is directly linked to their potential for causing health problems. Particulate matter of 2.5 micrometers or thirty times thinner than human hair, called PM 2.5 can be inhaled deep into lung tissue. Spot PM 2.5 measurements at garbage sites on fire placed immediately beside residences recorded upto 268μ/m3 while the safe limit (for 24-hour exposure) is 20μ/m3.

India is among the four most polluting countries in the world which emit over 50% of pollutants

Studies published in Environmental International and Neurology say that breathing PM 2.5, even at relatively low levels, may alter the size of a child’s developing brain, and increase risk of cognitive and emotional problems later in adolescence. Air pollution was linked to a greater chance of developing several neurological disorders, including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, or other dementias.

Recently, Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar said at the first ever International Day of Clean Air For Blue Skies that the Indian government is committed to reduce air pollution in 122 most polluted cities to meet goals of the 2019 National Clean Air Programme (NCAP.) The NCAP gradually aims to reduce pollution by 20-30% by 2024.

However, the AQI data generated by the government, while in line with AQI of other nations, is unable to provide basic local information imperative to successfully controlling air pollution in the Indian context. There are no localised studies on the effects of informal burning of garbage affecting the health of large numbers of people throughout India.

The US Environment Protection Agency says “The [AQI] monitoring network, while critical to protecting air quality, has limited use for direct personal or local air quality information. EPA is evaluating and developing new air measurement technologies, including sensors, to increase the ability of individuals and communities to learn about their local air quality.”

Effective garbage management systems are key to reducing air pollution and, alongside municipal authorities, pollution control boards and government, all of us have a role. Though people living in the vicinity of sources like burning garbage are continuously exposed, most are unaware of the serious damage to their own health and do not know what they can do other than burn their garbage. They are unaware of mechanisms to generate data or complain to authorities.

Citizens’ science programmes using low-cost air quality meters empower citizens, create awareness and generate useful data to inform local authorities about problems. Citizens’ science studies are also acknowledged by US Environmental Protection Agency and European Environment Agency to contribute to and augment AQI data and to create detailed data bases to effectively formulate local policies and control air pollution from local sources.

As 2020 draws to a close, the UNEP’s new ‘Emissions Gap Report 2020’ reiterates that, in spite of reduced emissions in 2020, we are not on track to control global emissions and are heading towards a world 3.2 degrees warmer by the end of the century. India is among the four most polluting countries in the world which emit over 50% of pollutants. We need action at global, national and local levels.

According to the World Economic Forum, six of the ten most polluted cities in the world in 2020 were in India. A new report of the Indian Council of Medical Research says that air pollution kills 1.67 million people in India and Maharashtra has the second highest air-pollution related deaths in the country. Covid has also brought the linkages between health and environment, particularly effects on respiratory health to the forefront.

In the dystopian year 2020, when effects of emissions and environmental destruction is more clearly present than ever before in the form of Covid, in the interlude between January and December, we looked outwards from within lockdown and saw unexpected blue skies. While cessation of previously ‘normal’ human activity was a defining feature of the past year, effects on air pollution were immediately visible and measurable.

We look back at this year when blue skies were visible in some of the most polluted cities of the world: Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta, Chennai and Hyderabad, with reduced pollution levels upto 54% according to a study published in the Journal Sustainable Cities and Society by Prashant Kumar, professor, University of Surrey, UK. The year when the Himalayas were visible from Punjab and Haryana.

A few months out of lockdown now, in December, we know that our slide backwards to the grey smog of air pollution didn’t take long. In the absence of adequate municipal garbage collection and disposal systems, garbage continues to be dumped where convenient. Scattered garbage heaps on Mumbai’s outskirts are not widely recognised as a serious health hazard. However, burning garbage is a continuous source of severe localised exposure, even when it may not accumulate city-wide to record a significant increase of the overall Air Quality Index.

There is an urgent need for people, recognising ill-effects of localised air pollution sources on their own health, to demand formal studies and management and to empower themselves. People need to control their own exposure, through managing their own garbage effectively, demanding effective garbage management systems from local Authorities and generating data through citizens’ science programmes. Citizens’ data may include photographing sites, monitoring air pollution through low-cost air quality meters and complaining to municipalities, collectors, gram panchayats and other local authorities.

Every action, big or little, helps and only empowered and aware citizenry can take action towards long-lasting change through engagement with simple measures to record local air pollution sources. Citizens’ actions will not only effectively map their own exposure and create awareness but will simultaneously contribute to more effective local management of air pollution and a Citizens’ Science database which can inform local, state and national policy. If you see something, do something!

(Views are personal)

The author is founder of the NGO awaaz foundation and member, clean air collective

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