Declare war against air pollution

Debapriya Mukherjee *

Severity of air pollution problem is increasing faster than government is responding to this problem. This problem has become a severe threat for human health in the past several years in India. Rapid economic growth has resulted in an increase in motor vehicle; and industrial and agricultural activities leading to serious air quality issues across India.

One of the most dangerous components of air pollution is fine particulate matter that measures less than the width of a human hair. These particles can penetrate deeply into the lungs causing serious health complications. Also gaseous substances present in the air further aggravated the health problem. According to estimates by the WHO (World Health Organization), ambient outdoor air pollution causes 1.3 million urban deaths worldwide each year.

Exposure to these particles is estimated to cause 12.4 lakhs death aged less than 70 in 2017 and 77 percent of India’s population is exposed to outdoor air pollution across India. Air pollution has been not only linked to illness and premature death but also linked to habitat, water quality, and ecosystem services.

The impact of particulate matter on human health has been highlighted elaborately but the effects of that fine particulates on plants remain neglected. Tiny pores in the leaves, the stomata, are the gatekeepers that regulate how much water vapor is released to the atmosphere. Stomata also allow carbon dioxide for photosynthetic production of energy storing sugars.

This causes a dilemma for plants, between thirst and starvation: Either closing the stomata saves water but restricts the uptake of carbon dioxide or opening the pores allow carbon dioxide to enter, but at the cost of increased water loss. Plants have adapted stomatal regulation to prevailing ambient conditions over evolutionary timescales, but particulate matter concentrations with toxic compounds were generally much lower than they are today as advocated by the researchers. Severe damage of the plants is observed in rural areas close to sponge iron industry and mine areas.

The vehicles particularly old contributes major environmental burden in cites even in mountain area. Large trucks are the greatest contributors to black carbon emissions close to major roadways. Also fossil fuel combustion, biomass burning and construction activities contribute remarkable environmental burden in the form of fine particulate matter and other gaseous substances.

People are exposed to harmful particulate matter from industries , too, but fires produce fine particles into the air at a rate three times as high as levels noted in emissions inventories at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to a new study. In India, increase of fine particulate matter originating from crop residue burning and their expected trans-boundary movement cause severe air pollution and haze formation.

Increasing anthropogenic aerosols generally induce a more stable atmosphere leading to accumulation of air pollutants and contribute to haze formation particularly in many cities in India. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has implemented strict norms on stubble burning. The Center has also approved a large sum of money for modern tools and technology to manage crop residue by converting them into compost.

But many states continue to burn stubble despite ban, a strong contributing factor for bad air quality.This problem is further compounded due to multiplicity of air polluting source mix (e.g. industries, automobiles, generator sets, domestic fuel burning, road side dusts, construction activities, etc.).

In recent past, severity of air pollution problem in metropolis and cities is highlighted but the people living in rural areas are also badly suffering due to trans-boundary movement of the pollutants originating from thermal power plant, sponge iron, coal washeries, crop burning, household and others. But this problem remains well hidden. The insufficient understanding of public pro-environmental intentions and behaviors has become a barrier to implementing appropriate regulations for air quality improvement.

The regulatory agencies have stipulated a series of actions for almost all sectors to control air pollution over the past decade. These actions include relocation of polluting industries, introduction of improved emission norms for vehicles, phasing out of lead from gasoline, reduction of sulphur in diesel and benzene in gasoline, city public transport fleet on compressed natural gas (CNG) and banning of 15-year old commercial vehicles in many areas.

Despite these initiatives, data generated over the years reveal that air pollution levels are still far above the permissible levels at many sites across India. Though regulatory authorities claim that series of actions taken by them helps to reduce pollution level in this year particularly in Delhi but in reality suffering of the people has reached to alarming proportions as air quality is deteriorating rapidly over the years.

Most importantly, the pollutants such as particularly polyaromatic hydrocarbon (PAH), mercury, volatile organic carbon and benzene those are carcinogenic were found relatively higher than the values reported by regulatory authorities in many cities. Declining trend that is observed in particular year and claimed as resultant effect of actions taken by regulatory authorities is mainly due to the influence of meteorological factors particularly wind speed and rainfall.

Regulatory authorities frame the rules/regulations/ permissible levels and serving the notices to noncompliant organizations from air conditioned room but without any sincere thought being given to their implementation. Our political rulers or governments both in centre and states practically ignore the gulf between permissible standard stipulated by the regulatory authorities and controlling air pollution realities at source.

Regulatory pressure compels the polluting units to adopt treatment technique for controlling environmental pollution but non-compliance is a common feature due to poor surveillance for whatever reason it may be. Thereby it is very common to see the emission from the chimney, vehicles, crop burning, diesel generator as well as dust from construction activities, roads etc. For supplementing these views, in recent past NGT had ordered to prevent pollution but concerned authorities completely failed to honor NGT’s directives as recently observed in Wet Bengal.

NGT had recommended guidelines to the West Bengal government to curb the pollution two years back but government miserably failed to achieve. Consequently, NGT imposed the penalty of Rs 5 crore for its failure to reduce the pollution levels. This failure may be attributed to the apathy of the governments both in centre and states because pollution problem is not one of the priorities to them in absence of public pressure.

My experience clearly established that the fines practically imposed by regulatory authorities are not enough to act as deterrent. From an empirical point of view, estimating the costs of controlling pollution is very difficult since this not only involve the installation of abatement technology as filters, but also involve other options such as modifying the production process, reallocating productive activity to reduce emissions, substituting fuels, changing the characteristics of products and investing in R&D to control pollution, among others.

The monetary quantification of the damages associated with pollution is a very controversial issue due to technical, political and ethical issues. Furthermore, the determination of environmental damages in monetary terms is very difficult to achieve due to the difficulty of measuring the damage generated by each source according to its spatial location, the difficulties to monitor and enforce the environmental policies, the uncertainty associated with the estimation of costs and benefits, the existence of previous distortions in the markets and also, the political, distributive and financial costs required to implement environmental regulations.

Sound environmental policy guided by science can only control air pollution and save lives, money, and ecosystems but at present, science faces skepticism because of paucity of facts and data that matter. The harmful emissions from various sources to be curtailed must be validated by environmental monitoring that is one of the most important requisites in evaluating the success or failure of environmental policies.

Monitoring program can keep a finger on the pulse of shifting environmental condition to track the effectiveness of pollution reduction policies. Thereby reliable ambient air quality data are urgently needed to recalibrate strategies if they are not working.

At present hourly assessments of concentrations of Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), Sulphur Dioxide (SO2), Ozone (O3), and particles measuring less than 2.5 ìm (PM2.5) and less than 10 ìm are being carried out by automatic analyzers installed at huge expenses since long but will not serve actual purpose because hourly data are not properly used to calculate monthly averages and determine overall concentration levels correlating meteorological influence that is most critical factor in clear statistical terms (not statistical lie).

Thereby whether pollutant concentrations has changed i.e. actual trend over the years cannot be brought to the public domain.Moreover adequacy and reliability of these data are questionable because mere interpretation of data cannot help in augmenting the knowledge of environmental processes and thereby lot of important dynamics of these pollutants in ambient air remains well hidden.

Air pollution problems must be addressed through collective and enforceable actions based on sound scientific evidences of serious air quality issues across India. These should include improved urban and transportation planning, and improved fuel standards and emission control (especially targeting vehicles, power generation and industries that contribute significantly to air pollution), rather than advising individuals and leaving to them to protect themselves from the harmful effects of air pollution.

In addition to the government’s efforts to develop a legal system using technological tools or top-down approaches, public participation is also essential to achieve sustainable development. Also a lot needs to be done to increase awareness towards clean Energy. A shift towards renewable energy must include in the plan to reduce dependency on fossil fuels as well as provide clean energy to households to tackle air pollution problem and climate change.

* Debapriya Mukherjee wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is former senior scientist, Central Pollution Control Board, Kolkata and can be reached at dpmcpcb(AT)yahoo(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on January 05, 2019.

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