CSE warns Delhi: Do not dismiss winter smog as an act of God

  • Delhi is used to winter smogs. But this year’s haze has been particularly severe because pollution levels in the city have gone up manifold – PM10 has increased by 47 per cent between 2000 and 2011, while nitrogen dioxide has gone up by 57 per cent

  • The city has lost its air quality gains. The current levels of fine particulates are four to six times higher. At stake is our health

  • Other countries have prevented such severe pollution episodes during winter with the help of aggressive pollution control measures. Why can’t Delhi do the same?

  • Delhi needs pollution emergency measures to reverse the losses fast. Implement second generation action plan with tough action

New Delhi, November 6, 2012: The dense smog which had been throttling Delhi for the past few days has lifted partially today, but it may come back with renewed vigour, as the factors causing it remain in force – says Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).

CSE has reviewed the magnitude and severity of the smog. Its researchers believe that while every winter, the calm and cool weather leads to a heavier pollution load on Delhi, this year, the capital is seeing a massive growth in actual pollution levels. The levels of respirable particulate matter (PM10) have surged 47 per cent -- from 191 microgramme per cubic metre in 2000 to 281 microgramme per cubic metre in 2011. In the same period, nitrogen dioxide levels have increased from 41.8 microgramme per cubic metre to 66 microgramme per cubic metre (a 57 per cent jump).

This hike in pollution levels has led to the creation of the deadly smog. Says Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director in charge of the air pollution and transportation programme at CSE: “Unfortunately, despite the scary hard facts about the elevated cocktail of pollution and health risks, the problem is being dismissed as a mere weather phenomenon. In other parts of the world, governments issue warnings and take pollution emergency measures during such severe pollution episodes to protect public health. But we are doing nothing.”

Worrying facts

Delhi localities are in grip of multi-pollutant crisis: Particulate matter is not the only thing choking us -- nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, ozone and benzene levels are playing havoc as well, as per official monitoring. Some of these pollutants come predominantly from vehicles.

Killer particles: PM2.5 levels are exceeding the standard by 4-6 times. An increase of only 10 microgramme per cubic metre in PM2.5 is associated with significant increases in health risks. High exposure is known to lead to increased hospitalisation for asthma, lung diseases, chronic bronchitis and heart damage. Long-term exposure can cause lung cancer.

High NOx: NO2 levels are exceeding standards in areas like Mandir Marg, Civil Lines and R K Puram. Levels of nitrogen oxides (NOx) have been increasing in the city -- a clear sign of pollution from vehicles. NO2 can trigger serious respiratory condition and sudden death syndrome among infants.

Ozone, the new threat: Eight-hourly ozone levels show slight increases over time – they exceed the standards almost on a daily basis in a few locations. Ozone is not directly emitted by any source but is created from reaction between NOx and the volatile organic compounds in the air under the influence of sunlight.

Pollution correlates with peak traffic hours and freight movement: Data from the Delhi Pollution Control Committee in different localities shows that pollution levels go up significantly during peak traffic hours compared to off-peak hours. For instance:

  • In R K Puram, Mandir marg and Civil Lines, both PM2.5 and NOx concentrations are high during peak hours.

  • Pollution levels are extremely high in Anand Vihar which witnesses very heavy traffic due to a lot of inter-state movement of vehicles.

  • In Civil Lines, PM2.5 levels are very high even during night; this could be due to the movement of goods traffic


How does the world combat such emergencies
During high pollution episodes, Paris authorities advise drivers to postpone trips to the city or bypass it, use public transport or resort to car-pooling; other measures included minimizing combustion of high sulphur fuels in industry, curtailing industrial operations and so on.

In Mexico, phase 1 pollution alert requires cutting down of 30-40 per cent of industrial pollution; stopping 50 per cent of government-owned vehicles and polluting vehicles from plying; exempting alternative fuel vehicles from restrictions. In phase 2 alert, schools are closed, and one-day-a-week ban on vehicles are extended to two days. In phase 3 alert, industries are closed down.

In Berlin, older polluting vehicles are not allowed in the city centre. Other governments take daily pollution levels very seriously to protect public health. 

Says Roychowdhury: “During the 40s and 50s, the Western world had experienced severe pollution episodes in winter. But the infamous London Smog (that had killed 4,000 people in a week in December 1952) and other similar events are now a matter of past -- simply because of aggressive policy action to control pollution. Delhi can also do this.”

Delhi has exhausted soft options

The city has already advanced emission norms; strengthened its ‘pollution under control’ programme; implemented CNG programme; and restricted a great part of commercial vehicles from entering the city. The next steps need to combat not only the rising pollution but also the high mixture of pollutants.

This is challenging in a city that already has 5.6 million registered vehicles and adds more than 1,100 new personal vehicles a day. This is almost double what was added in the city in pre-CNG days. The market share of diesel cars is already close to 60 per cent. Even the so-called ‘clean’ diesel running on fuel with 50 ppm of sulphur, allows higher limits for NOx and particulate emissions compared to petrol cars.

Delhi is also taking a long time to scale up its public transport system. Traffic volume has exceeded the designed capacity on all arterial roads, making more than half of the city’s residents living within the influence zone of these roads more vulnerable to traffic emissions.

Need urgent action

Cocktail of pollution can be deadly in a Delhi already gasping for breath. The city must act immediately and aggressively to reduce its daily pollution levels:

  • Delhi must speed up implementation of the second generation action plan to meet air quality standards.

  • Scale up and integrate public transport systems. Augment walking and cycling facilities for green commuting and public transport integration.

  • Accelerate emissions standards roadmap for clean vehicles and fuels to cut emissions are source. Stop dieselization and its toxic effects.

  • Physically remove visibly smoking vehicles. Enforce emissions checks on in-use vehicles.

  • Regulate and reduce the daily influx of traffic from outside. Augment intercity public transport connectivity and ridership. Restrict entry of non-destined goods vehicles to Delhi.

  • Use smog alert system for effective measures.

  • Draw up action plan for other pollution sources as well – make pollution control more stringent in power plants and in remaining industrial units.

  • Implement ban on open burning inside and outside the city

For more details, please contact Anumita Roychowdhury at 9811793923, anumita@cseindia.org or Vrinda Nagar, CSE Media Resource Centre, at 9654106253/ vrinda.nagar@cseindia.org.