CSE condemns environment ministry's claim that vehicles are not the root cause of air pollution

January 29, 2015

Says ministry is trying to protect vehicles and the automobile industry from strong action

  • Union ministry of environment and forests and climate change (MoEF), in an affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court, downplays the contribution of vehicles to air pollution

  • Says vehicles responsible for less than 7 per cent of PM10 contribution, and that road dust, industries and power plants are the major contributors. Strange claims, since Delhi has not increased the number of power plants in the city and has relocated its polluting industry

  • Claims based on flawed study, which ignores the more deadly PM2.5 concentrations. Ministry seems to be holding the health of the public – especially children and the old – to ransom by this action

  • CSE lambasts the ministry’s claims. Says vehicles contribute more of the smaller particles that get into our blood stream and damage respiratory, cardiovascular systems, and cause cancer and premature deaths  

  • Points out that there is evidence that pollution levels in Delhi go down when cars are off the road 

New Delhi, January 9, 2015: Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) condemns environment ministry’s claim that vehicular pollution is not a problem in Delhi. The ministry has filed an affidavit this week in response to a notice issued by the Supreme Court asking for action on the increasing levels of air pollution. The affidavit was filed on behalf of all other concerned ministries: the MoEF contended that vehicles are not to be blamed for the pollution as they account for only 6.6 per cent of the particulate problem! It claims pollution in the air is mostly due to dust from roads and construction activities – not vehicles.

“We are deeply shocked at the callous and indifferent attitude of the ministry towards one of the most serious public health crises looming in Delhi and other cities of India,” says Sunita Narain, director general of CSE. 

In its affidavit, the ministry says the government has implemented the Supreme Court’s order on relocation of polluting industry – at the same time, it claims that industry and power plants are still responsible for 78 per cent of nitrogen oxides and 95.4 per cent of sulphur dioxide present in the capital’s air.

Says Anumita Roychowdhury, CSE’s executive director and head of its air pollution control programme: “The government seems desperate to belittle the role of vehicles. This protects automobile industry and car users because combating pollution today requires tough measures to restrain cars, encourage public transport and leapfrog vehicle technology.” 

She adds: “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.” 

However, the affidavit has proposed considering leapfrogging to Euro VI emissions standards by 2020. This must be mandated immediately. 

‘Bad science’ misguides policy action 
Even though the affidavit acknowledges that “the rapid growth of vehicles and absence of roadmap for vehicular pollution control are contributing to rising levels of particulate matter in Delhi;…” and that “growing pace of vehicular population, use of diesel vehicles and old commercial vehicles is likely to negate positive effects of the steps taken earlier,” it falls back on the dubious results of the ministry’s six-year old study in six Indian cities on contribution of pollution sources to air pollution. This study claims vehicles contribute less than 7 per cent of PM10 (particulate matter 10) in Delhi.  

CSE says the MoEF has only assessed the PM10 inventory, which is made up of the coarser particles. It does not have any information on PM2.5 sources which are more dangerous to human health. It is an established fact across the world that vehicles’ contribution to pollution increases when smaller particles are considered. 

Says Roychowdhury: “The ministry’s Delhi study done by the Nagpur-based National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) had initially included a limited assessment of PM2.5. This was later withdrawn by NEERI as it was based on a flawed methodology that ended up blaming cooking gas (LPG) for 61 per cent of the PM2.5 in Delhi’s air! But the same study, curiously enough, did not find any connection between LPG and PM10 (which includes PM2.5). This is impossible and defies any scientific judgment. It raises many questions about the overall intent and science of the NEERI study and the merit of using the results of this study for policy making.” 

The ministry, says CSE, has not considered the toxicity of particles (that are carcinogenic) coming from vehicular exhaust to weigh the risks. In fact, it has not bothered to initiate a policy response to the World Health Organization’s classification of air pollution and diesel emissions as carcinogens for their strong links with lung cancer. 

Raising the dust over road dust
The MoEF would like all to believe that inhaling road dust is benign and so there is no reason to worry. But studies that have done chemical analysis of PM10 particles in Delhi have found dangerous levels of carcinogenic toxins from vehicular exhaust in the road dust. This road dust, which the MoEF finds in plenty, is certainly not safe to inhale. A 2012 study by the Indira Gandhi Institute of Technology, Indraprastha University and National Physical Laboratory had found high concentrations of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the urban soil of Delhi – the levels were three-seven times higher than the norm. The carcinogenic potency of PAH in industrial and roadside soil was found to be 10 and 6 times greater respectively than that in agricultural soil. 

Pollution levels go down when cars are off the roads 
A quick analysis done by CSE in Delhi shows that on national holidays when the traffic volume is less, pollution is lower. For instance, on January 26, 2013 (Republic Day, when traffic is restricted across the city) PM2.5 levels in R K Puram (in south Delhi) declined by 1.5 times compared to the previous day (from 244 microgramme per cubic metre to 153); the levels rose to 178 microgramme on January 27 and to 345 microgramme by January 28. 

In Punjabi Bagh (west Delhi), PM2.5 levels were 140 microgramme per cubic metre on Republic Day; they rose to 187 on January 27 and to 216 on January 29. Similarly, on October 2, 2013 (the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi), PM10 levels in R K Puram dipped to 63 microgramme per cubic metre from 108 on October 1; they rose to 151 on October 4 and 251 on October 5.  

This trend is corroborated by evidence from Bengaluru, where on the ‘bus-day’ – a day in a week when the city tries to reduce car usage – pollution levels show a clear dip. On bus-days, levels of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, PM10, carbon monoxide and ozone decreased by 8.2, 4.8, 3.6, 11.7 and 4 per cent, respectively, compared to that on a normal day. 

Vehicles require special attention 
Says Sunita Narain: “Even as action is needed on all pollution sources to meet air quality targets, vehicles need special attention because vehicular emissions contribute to significant human exposure. People living within a 500-metre radius of any road are the most exposed to vehicular pollution.”

CSE researchers point out that the US-based Health Effects Institute had applied this criteria to Delhi and found that at least 55 per cent of Delhi’s 17 million people are vulnerable – they live within 500 metre of arterial roads that are directly exposed. 

In 2009, the same time when the MoEF had conducted its source apportionment study, another study carried out by the School of Environmental Sciences in Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi showed that vehicles contribute 61-69 per cent of fine particulates in Uttam Nagar, Nizamuddin, Connagught Place and ITO, some of the busiest places in the capital. This study also shows that about 40 per cent of the particulate matter is as tiny as PM0.7 – less than PM1, the most dangerous fraction, which is not even monitored officially in Delhi. 

In fact, global studies have shown that contribution of road traffic to particulate pollution increases when the size of the particulates becomes smaller. A 2011 study by Jawaharlal Nehru University indicates that particles have high levels of carcinogenic benzo(a)pyrene, benzo(ghi)perylene and benzo(b)fluoranthene -- vehicles were among the dominant sources. Studies done by the University of California-Berkeley have found that Delhi and other Indian cities account for some of the highest exposures to vehicular fumes in the world. 

Ministry ignores CPCB’s own health study on children
Roychowdhury finds it shocking how a proposal to shut schools on high pollution days has been dismissed on the grounds that schools remain shut in winter anyway and hence their exposure time is less. In many countries across the world, this is one of the most significant steps that is taken on severe pollution days. 

While MoEF has liberally used its flawed source apportionment study to downplay vehicular pollution, it has ignored health evidences from other studies done by its own scientists. Extensive evidences have emerged from the epidemiological study on children done in Delhi by the Central Pollution Control Board and the Chittaranjan National Cancer Institute of Kolkata; the results of the study were published in 2012. The study had covered close to 12,000 school-going children from 36 schools in different parts of Delhi and in different seasons. It found that every third child tested had reduced lung function due to greater exposure to particulate pollution. The sputum of Delhi’s children was found to contain four times more iron-laden macrophages than those from cleaner environs, pointing to a possibility of pulmonary haemorrhage. The levels of these bio-markers in children were found to be higher in areas with high PM10 levels. 

In 2013, the World Allergy Organisation (WAO) Journal had reported high respiratory disorder symptoms in students living in Chandni Chowk (66 per cent) in north Delhi, Mayapuri (59 per cent) in west Delhi and Sarojini Nagar (46 per cent) in south Delhi. Heavy traffic movement has been found to be the common factor in these relatively different localities. The WAO also alerts that allergic problems will increase as air pollution rises. 

CSE, too, has some stunning first-hand data from its unique initiative to assess how much polluted air do people of Delhi breathe in on a daily basis. The results of the study, released some days ago, say 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 in Delhi. Concentration of pollution in our breath is several times higher than the ambient air concentration. This can be a serious risk to public health.

Acknowledge the problem. Act now. 
CSE has urged the government of India to acknowledge the air pollution problem and public health crisis and put in place pollution emergency action for smog episodes -- short and medium term measures for more lasting and durable changes to meet clean air standards in a time-bound manner. What matters most from public health perspective is the daily dose of toxins that people breathe. If urgent steps are not taken to bring pollution levels down to meet the clean air standards, it will lead to a public health disaster. Action in Delhi needs to gather momentum: 

  • Implement air quality index with health advisory with pollution emergency measures. 

  • Nation-wide Euro IV should be in place by 2015. Leapfrog emissions standards to Euro VI in 2020. Control dieselisation with tax measures to cut deadly toxic particles. 

  • Need stringent measures for on-road and old vehicles. 

  • Improve and scale up public transport and last mile connectivity.

  • Implement non-motorised network plan for time-bound implementation.

  • Restrain growth of cars with parking restraints and taxes.

  • Implement priority action for power plants, open burning, generator sets and construction.