The Air You Breathe In On Delhi’s Roads Is Worse Than You Imagined. Here’s Why!

Posted on March 30, 2015 in Environment

By Anjali Nambissan

Ambient air quality monitors are lying to you about how bad the air you breathe is. On-road emissions of toxic pollutants is worse than you ever imagined…

Photo Credit
Photo Credit

So we knew Delhi’s air is pretty bad. But it is worse, much worse, on the road, contends Joshua Apte, assistant professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering at the University of Texas (from where he also completed his PhD). He is sometimes referred to as the Rickshaw Researcher, in the urban air quality research and advocacy circle (Yes, there is such a thing) because of his research to show how bad on-road emissions are compared to ambient air quality monitoring levels. And he conducted this research in a, well…auto rickshaw.

In 2011, Apte, armed with a range of air quality monitors of varied sensitivity, went from Connaught Place in central Delhi to south Delhi and back, in an auto rickshaw, as well as in an air-conditioned and non-AC car. He did this for several hours every day over the period of four months to measure how bad the air we breathe in on Delhi’s roads really is. It was so bad that his equipment broke. The levels of fine, ultrafine, and black carbon particles inside cars and auto-rickshaws in New Delhi are among the highest ever reported on urban roads, he discovered. “Traffic exposure is not represented in urban ambient air quality monitoring data,” Apte said about what motivated him to make 75 rush-hour trips in an auto, AC and non-AC car collecting about 200-hours of in-vehicle pollution. He was speaking at the annual get-together of environmental scientists and researchers, Anil Agarwal Dialogue, organised by the Centre for Science an Environment, earlier this month. Delhi/NCR has about 11 official air quality monitors, while some Indian cities have none. The readings of these monitors are already at alarming levels with WHO analysis of this data placing Delhi and 12 Indian cities among the most polluted in the world. “The monitors are placed away from roads and public spaces so that industrial and vehicular emissions don’t distort or dominate the readings,” said Apte.

Good grief! It is bad on the road, it is bad off of it, so if you want to live “holding your breath may mitigate exposure by 30%,” Apte advised, in jest of course.

“People feel disengaged by heavy data from a machine placed somewhere. If you could tell PM data of a place you are in, on your smartphone right now, you’d make better decisions to protect yourself,” said Apte, “People will know whether they can go for a jog on this street or take a walk at a particular time of the day.” Because if CSE is to be believed all that we were told about morning walks being healthy and taking a stroll post dinner to aid in digestion, might actually be doing more harm than good. In a study in December 2014, they found that pollution levels are as high as 705.68 micrograms per cubic metre of PM 2.5 in posh residential areas of the capital city between 8 and 9am. “We have found that daily personal exposure to toxic air is significantly higher than the background ambient air pollution that is monitored by the Delhi Pollution Control Committee. This is a serious risk to public health,” said Sunita Narain, the director-general of CSE, in a statement at the release of the study.

The more accessible this data is – on how safe your air is in Delhi – the more unhappy people will be with it. And that is a good thing,” concludes Apte. Watch this video he made from his auto, keep an eye on the reading as the truck goes by. Does it make you unhappy enough?

This begs the question or questions then – why don’t we have technology to measure on-road emissions and more dissemination of this data? Or even stricter vehicle emissions norms and better air? Is it because Delhi-ites aren’t ‘unhappy’ enough with their polluted air?

Air and There

It is because even though cars are added to Indian roads at an alarming annual rate, our own Ministry of Environment Forests and Climate Change thinks vehicles aren’t to blame for how bad the air is.

In January this year, the MoEF submitted an affidavit to the Supreme Court saying that though “the rapid growth of vehicles and absence of roadmap for vehicular pollution control are contributing to rising levels of particulate matter in Delhi”, vehicles cannot be blamed for the overall urban air pollution problem because they only contribute by 6.6% to the particulate problem. Eh?!

“It is inexplicable why the government has dismissed nearly all the actions and emergency measures suggested by the Court to protect children and other vulnerable sections from vehicular pollution, as ‘not doable’. Neither has the government offered any effective action plan that can help Delhi meet the air quality standards for all pollutants within a tight time-frame,” Anumita Roychowdhury, head of CSE’s air pollution programme, said in a statement where the environmental NGO is taking down the MoEF affidavit point-by-point. The affidavit did suggest leapfrogging from the current vehicle emissions standard of Euro IV to Euro VI (which is where the world is at). And because of all the serious flak they received, the MoEF backtracked completely and corrected its position to say vehicles contribute by 8.7% – 20.5% to particulate pollution.

But the Union budget 2015 found no reason to allocate any money or mind space to combating urban air pollution. The least they could have done, say experts, was to levy excise on petrol and diesel to pay for this transition from Euro IV to Euro VI. Only 16 cities in India have air quality monitors, while the ones in UP and Rajasthan use manual monitoring technology which is obsolete.

How bad does it have to get for us to get some breathable air around here? China-bad?