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Dusty Delhi

Heat and dust of Delhi are real problems. All-pervasive dust has ensured Delhi remains the most polluted city in the world, whether it’s winter or summer. Is there a solution?

Delhi remains the most polluted city of the world, irrespective of whether it’s winters or summers. This year has been uncharacteristically bad. Last week, a sudden dust storm in the National Capital Region (NCR) increased the suspended particulate matter in the air by huge amount, almost making the air unfit to breathe. From 138 at 6 pm on Sunday evening, the PM10 concentration index shot up to 433 in two days on June 14.
Experts call this an outcome of change in the wind direction, that disrupted at least 13 flights departing from Delhi, and 11 others that were to arrive. People were advised to avoid staying outdoors for too long.

For the people of Delhi, it was a crude reminder of the grey winters when the excessive pollution formed an impregnable blanket over the capital. In November last year, the air quality index (AQI) remained over 400 for over two weeks. Mind it, the safe limit of PM10 is 100ug/m3. The distinction, though, is that unlike in the winter, this time the PM2.5 didn’t rise, which indicates the fact that primarily atmospheric dust was responsible for the week’s pollution peaking.

A famous saying goes: you are dust and to dust you shall return. But to live in dusty environment is hazardous to health. Dust is the main culprit as far as the air pollution is concerned and is often ignored. Consider this. Air pollution is an amalgamation of gasses and solid particulates of dust/soil and pollen. High level of suspended particulate matter (SPM), which is primarily dust, is caused by human activity. The smaller the dust particle (thankfully, which was not the last case last week), the longer it levitates and further it travels in the air, and is more likely to penetrate deep in the lungs, while ultrafine particles of dust get absorbed directly into the bloodstream.

Photo: PTI

Construction dust is fine, therefore the first measure to control SPM was that the government put a ban on construction activities. But the widespread unregulated construction work going on in Delhi is a major cause of generating unprecedented levels of dust. Metro construction is also going on endlessly, which prompted the Supreme Court-appointed panel Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA) to issues strictures on Delhi Metro for not pursuing a “vigorous” anti-pollution drive at its construction sites. EPCA chief Bhure Lal carried out an inspection late last year at the Anand Vihar Delhi Metro construction site and was not happy with the dust management and suggested various measures like water sprinkling. Earlier last week, A Sudhakar, member-secretary of the Central Pollution Control Board, assured the people of Delhi, “We are expecting some improvement on Friday as the government agencies have been asked to sprinkle water and strictly enforce control measures at construction sites.”

Dust is enveloping not just Delhi — 13 out of the top 20 most polluted cities in the world are in India. Acute respiratory distress is caused by excessive exposure to dust and dirt inhalation, which can develop into serious lung infections. Inhalation of dust causes irritation in the eyes, coughing, sneezing, fever and finally an asthma attack. Fine dust settles deep into the alveoli in the lungs causing ‘dust pneumonia’ or ‘pneumoconiosis’ that simply means ‘dusty-lungs.’ It can lead to lung damage and respiratory failure.

Though the lung is the prime target, other organs are also affected by dust, including the extrapulmonary lymph nodes, skin, salivary glands, liver, spleen, kidneys, bone, myocardium and skeletal muscle. Most of the symptoms appear when the disease has progressed.

A study conducted by Chittaranjan National Cancer Institute that was commissioned by the CPCB shows more than 40 per cent of schoolgoing children in Delhi have reduced lung function while the comparable figures in the rural areas of West Bengal and Uttarakhand is around 25 per cent.
A study on health impact of particulate pollution in Delhi found that the health impacts analysis estimates 7,350–16,200 premature deaths and 6 million asthma attacks per year. So it should come as no surprise that in India, air pollution causes 527,700 deaths every year.

This problem is not unique to Delhi, many metropolises across the globe had to face ‘dust’ problem in the past. For example, in the early 1950s, the ‘Great Smog’ — that’s what it was called — killed 8000 people in London.
Air pollution is responsible for Beijing’s own quintessential disease — the Beijing cough.
To deal with this dusty menace, many cities in the West have stringent measures in place to control the emission of dust, including close monitoring and regulation of construction, as well as, demolition activities.

For instance, London carries out ‘dust risk assessment’ that includes all aspects of construction, from demolition work, to earthwork, to digging, to actual construction and to monitoring of vehicles and earth-movers deployed at construction sites.
Some cities have identified potential sources of dust emissions and have specific guidelines to deal with it. These guidelines have to be followed irrespective it’s construction of bridges or flyover or a two-room flat.

Not just that, London introduced the ‘Air Quality Neutral’ provision for building — operation, construction and transport. The developer is required to off-set emissions by off-site by planting trees, retro-fitting abatement technology for vehicles and upgrading or abatement work to combustion plants. The result is for everyone to see the PM10 in London is 22 while the PM2.5 is 15.
Watch out!! The heat and dust of this city can cause serious damage.