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Air quality standards to be rethought next year

KOLKATA, INDIA - 22 Oct 2016: Boys play soccer on the Maidan on October 22, 2016 in Kolkata (Calcutta), India air quality standards concept.
A group of boys play soccer in the smog on a maidan in Kolkata. Environmental concerns such as pollution have a ruinous effect on child health. Image credit: edan / 123rf

India is to review its air quality standards next year, addressing an environmental and public health issue of significant concern. 

New national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) are likely, reports indicate. Discussions are said to be considering ultra-fine particulate matter (PM0.1), smaller than fine particulate matter or PM 2.5 which denotes particular matter of 2.5 microns or less. As one study explains, ​​”compared to fine particles (PM2.5), they cause more pulmonary inflammation and are retained longer in the lung. Their toxicity is increased with smaller size, larger surface area, adsorbed surface material, and the physical characteristics of the particles. Exposure to PM0.1 induces cough and worsens asthma. Metal fume fever is a systemic disease of lung inflammation most likely caused by PM0.1.” 

Experts at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Kanpur reportedly received the nod from the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) to prepare a report on India’s air quality standards, with a timeframe of twelve months according to an official within the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change. The team will include experts from IIT-Kanpur, IIT-Delhi, the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) in Nagpur, and the All India Institutes of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). 

India last revised its air quality standards in 2009. The NAAQs were first formulated in 1982 and revised in 1994. As Vishwa Mohan reports for The Times of India, “the expert group will examine the criteria adopted by different countries and WHO’s guidelines before arriving at its final suggestions. The scientists will also factor in India’s geographical position and meteorological conditions while recommending updates for the NAAQS…besides expanding the scope of measurements for different pollutants by redefining areas, time period for long and short-term values and frequency of measurements, the group will also analyse effects of air pollutants on human health and vegetation.” 

As The Times of India reports, “the ‘scope of work’ for the group…shows that the team will conduct primary health surveys at multiple locations, where high concentrations of various pollutants are reported, for establishing the “health effects of various pollutants”. The locations for this survey will be decided in consultation with CPCB. Suggestions on guidelines for designing of monitoring network, setting up of monitoring locations, data validation protocol, review of ‘air quality index’ (AQI) and use of various technologies for monitoring are also part of the ‘scope of work’ for the expert group.” 

Air pollution is among the most pressing environmental issues facing India at the moment. It has long shouldered the burden of being among the world’s worst-affected nations in terms of poor air quality, frequently dominating the list of countries home to the world’s worst-polluted cities. Such is the deterioration of air quality in the country’s metros at times that the national capital Delhi has been likened more than once to a ‘gas chamber.’ 

This is not to say that rural India is exempt. In fact, this is far from the case. Rural India accounted for 75 percent of the country’s 1.1 million deaths related to air pollution in 2015. 

The health effects of air pollution are far-reaching and immensely damaging. Research links air pollution to dementia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), psychiatric disorders, and cancer among others.

This is to say nothing of the incredibly detrimental effects on the health of our children. As previously noted by Health Issues India, “over 93 percent of the world’s 1.8 billion children are exposed to toxic air pollution, the report attests. This includes 630 million under the age of five. 700,000 children under five die each year due to air pollution and more than a quarter of deaths of children under five years is directly or indirectly related to environmental risks….These are worrisome figures and should ring alarm bells for a country like India, home to seven of the world’s ten most polluted cities and where household air pollution contributes to between 22 and 52 percent of the overall pollution levels.” 

That India is revisiting its air quality standards is good news, especially as hidden air pollutants are upping the risks of health detriments. As my colleague Nicholas Witts reported earlier this year, “Indian cities’ levels of air pollution are continuing to rise. Critical contributions to this trend are coming from hidden air pollutants, scientists from the University of Birmingham have revealed. Using observations from instruments on satellites that scan the global skies every day, scientists were able to build estimated trends for a range of air pollutants from 2005 to 2018, timed to examine rapid development in India and air quality policies in the UK. 

“The findings from these estimates, published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, showed that PM 2.5…are the leading contributor to premature death from exposure to air pollution, and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in Kanpur and Delhi. Alongside this, the air pollutant formaldehyde was found to have increased in Delhi, Kanpur and London.” 

Robust air quality standards and measures to improve air quality are vital for India going forward. The country gasped for air long before COVID-19 struck. Air pollution has had a chokehold on the country for a long time – and without working towards cleaner skies, the coil is only poised to tighten. 

As T. M. Chen, president of Continental Carbon India, Limited (CCIL), told me in an interview earlier this year, “we need more discussions for the long-term adverse health effects of chronically high pollution levels throughout the year. To combat air pollution in the long run, more awareness needs to be created among policymakers and the general public to set up phased reviews on the progress to control the harmful emissions.” 

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