Hold your breath in New Delhi

Think twice before choosing to visit New Delhi over Beijing. Turns out that the air quality in the Indian capital is worse than Beijing, making it the most polluted city in the world. And people are paying for this with their lives. By Elana Caro.

New Delhi smog

Most people in the world call it smog, but the residents of New Delhi call it “fog”. Either way, it is thick, grey and very filthy. So filthy, in fact, that Barun Aggarwal, director of the Breath Easy organisation, is quoted in the Tages-Anzeiger as saying that the air in New Delhi is worse than that in Beijing. He measured the air outside his office building last month and found it contained 700 micrograms of PM2.5, a harmful particulate matter, per cubic metre. That is 28 times higher than the exposure limit recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).

New Delhi is the poster child of air pollution

Figures from the New York Times also shows that New Delhi – and not Beijing – should be the poster child of air pollution. For the first three weeks of 2014, New Delhi’s average daily peak reading of fine particular matter was 473, more than twice as high as the average of 227 in Beijing. And by the time pollution exceeded 500 in Beijing for the first time on 15 January, New Delhi had already had eight such days.

A study from Yale University shows that the problem is not limited to New Delhi alone. In its 2014 Environmental Performance Index, India came in 177 out of 178 countries for air pollution and average exposure to PM2.5. China came in last. In terms of overall air quality, it came in 174, followed only by neighbouring Pakistan, China, Nepal and Bangladesh.

Beijing becomes a model for action

But while both Beijing and New Delhi – like China and India – are among the most polluted places in the world, the responses of their governments could not be more different. In recent years, the government of Beijing has announced various steps to curb pollution: removing 180,000 old vehicles from the road, restricting sales of new car, replacing polluting heating systems in old homes, replanting the city’s forests, and others according to the DownToEarth blog.

New Delhi, on the other hand, is closing its eyes – if not its mouths – to the problem. The city’s recently elected government did not even mention air pollution among its 18 priorities.

And the people react differently, too. In Beijing they walk around with face masks whereas in New Delhi most people ignore or even outright deny that there is a problem. Frank Hammes, chief executive of IQAir, a Swiss-based maker of air filter’s, says that his company’s sales are hundreds of times higher in China than in India. “Why there’s not the same concern in India is puzzling.”

Call it fog or smog, but it still kills

It is all the more puzzling because Indians are dying. Their so-called “fog” is caused by a toxic mixture of emissions from millions of cars, coal-based power plants, smoke from fires that poor people use to keep themselves warm and the diesel generators that the better-off use to power their homes during the many power cuts.

But whether one calls it fog or smog, it is poisonous. According to WHO statistics, India has the world’s highest death rate from chronic respiratory diseases and it has more deaths from asthma than anywhere else in the world, reports the New York Times. Air pollution is the fifth leading cause of death in India, with 620,000 premature deaths each year. This is a six-fold increase from 2000, reports DownToEarth.

Indians also have the world’s weakest lungs. According to a study by Dr. MyLinh Duong (of the Population Health Research Institute in Hamilton, Canada) and several co-authors, the combination of air pollution, poor sanitation and contaminated water are making the country one of the most dangerous places in the world for lungs.

It is so bad, in fact, that some even fear an exodus of affluent Indians. Annat Jain, a private equity investor, told the New York Times “whenever we leave the country, everyone goes back to breathing normally. It’s something my wife and I talk about constantly.”

Plants on rooftops

But a country seeking to compete on the global market can hardly afford to experience a brain drain. Cheaper – and far more sensible – would be to take immediate and determined steps to reduce air pollution at its source. But even simpler, more local steps and techniques can still bring about tangible improvements.

Inspired by NASA’s research on using plants to filter air, researchers and businessman Kamal Meattle planted a massive plant-filled greenhouse on the roof of his office building in New Delhi. All the air for the building is sucked into the greenhouse, filtered and enriched by the plants, and then pumped into the building. “We grow our very own fresh air”, he tells the Tages-Anzeiger, claiming it is as good as in parts of Germany. He also claims that the 300 people working in the building have measurably less dry eyes, breathe easier, experience less headaches and are also more productive.

Healthy air for healthy people. Is it still so difficult to understand?

Picture credit: Mark Danielson/Creative Commons

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