CSE welcomes launch of the national air quality index by the Union environment minister

  • After a long wait, the Union ministry of environment and forests has released the first ever draft proposal on air quality index (AQI) and health alert for public comments 

  • This needs to be rolled out quickly for implementation to protect public health and catalyse pollution emergency measures in cities

  • CSE has applied the proposed AQI to a few pre-winter months in Delhi that shows share of ‘good’ and poor quality days vary across months and seasons. Several locations also show a number of ‘good’ days when pollution levels dip 50 per cent below the standards. Days with poor air quality increases as we approach winter. With strong efforts, the number of good days can be increased 

New Delhi, October 17, 2014: Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has welcomed the release of the national air quality index and health advisory by Prakash Javadekar, Union minister for environment and forests here today. 

CSE has also applauded the ministry’s new initiative of introducing a health advisory to inform people about the degree of severity of daily air quality and the health consequences. This can help people take precautions on days that have poor air quality. Javadekar, while releasing the air quality index, said: “Now one number, one colour and one description will help people to understand the quality of air they are breathing.” 

Said Anumita Roychowdhury, CSE’s executive director-research and advocacy and head of its air pollution team: “CSE has been demanding adoption of this programme as this can help people to understand the quality of air and the possible health effects. This is needed to demystify complex air quality data, help promote public awareness and build public pressure for effective air pollution control in cities.”  

An air quality index (AQI) is a method by which daily air quality is classified according to actual concentration and described simply for informing people.

The index was prepared by an expert group set up by the Union ministry of environment and forests that includes prominent medical doctors from leading hospitals, research bodies including IIT Kanpur, and Centre for Science and Environment. 

The key highlights of the proposed index are as follow:

• The AQI has been developed for eight pollutants – PM2.5, PM10, nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, ozone, and carbon monoxide. The ministry has also taken additional steps to include lead and ammonia,that also have harmful effects over time. 

• Air pollution levels have been classified into six bands with simple descriptions: The AQI has been developed in relation to the Ambient Air Quality Standards and air quality has been classified into six bands and described simply as good, satisfactory, moderately polluted, poor, very poor, and severe. Each band has cut points of concentration with a colour code to visually express the level of severity that people can understand easily. This recognises the principle that from a public health standpoint, even air quality standards that are the regulatory targets to push action are not good enough. From that perspective, air quality is classified as good if the pollution levels are at least 50 per cent below the regulatory standards. This will be reported daily by the state pollution control boards. 

• Health advisory to raise public awareness: The government will now issue health alerts to people based on air quality index. Possible health consequences of each air quality band will be indicated separately to alert the vulnerable -- especially the elderly, children, and those already predisposed towards heart and respiratory problems. This will also indicate health consequences for general public during severe smoggy episodes. For instance, good air quality days will have minimal impact. On days that are satisfactory, it may cause minor breathing discomfort to sensitive people. On severely polluted days there may be respiratory impacts even on healthy people, and serious health impacts with lung and heart disease and so on. 

• AQI will be implemented nationally in million plus cities first and then the next rung in the next phase. 

CSE applies the proposed air quality index to PM2.5 levels in pre-winter months in Delhi (July 1 to October 15, 2014). Shows interesting results 

To test how the days in Delhi will rank once the proposed AQI begins to roll, CSE has applied the proposed index in three monitoring locations – R K Puram, Civil Lines, and Punjabi Bagh. Distribution of days ranked good, satisfactory, moderately polluted, poor, very poor, and severe varies quite widely across months, seasons and locations:

• Delhi does record good air quality days with pollution levels 50 per cent below permissible level in some months. Their share needs to increase: Between July and October 2014, just before the onset of winter (that also includes rainy days), Delhi seems to have had several days when air pollution levels were 50 per cent below the standard. For instance, 7-8 per cent of the days in Punjabi Bagh during this period have recorded ‘good’ days. In R K Puram, 5 per cent in July, 33 per cent in August, 19 per cent in September, and 10 per cent of the days in October have been recorded as ‘good’. But Civil Lines, a known pollution hotspot, had only 4 per cent of the days in September as ‘good’. 

• Share of severe pollution days – the top bands vary significantly across months and locations: The number of severely polluted days, the top band in AQI system, increases as winter approaches. Punjabi Bagh has not experienced any severely polluted day during these four months. R K Puram has not experienced any severely polluted day in the months of July, August, and September, but 30 per cent of the days in October were severe. In Civil Lines, 21 per cent of days in July, 76 per cent in August, 11 per cent in September, and 100 per cent days in October were severe. 

• Pre-winter phase shows higher number of days meeting the air quality standard which is described as ‘satisfactory’: A substantial number of days in most locations has met air quality standards during this period. In Punjabi Bagh, 21 per cent of days in July, 40 in August and 29 in September have met the standards (but none in October so far). In R K Puram, 21 per cent in July, 66 in August and 33 in September met the standards. It dropped to 10 per cent in October. In Civil Lines while 52 per cent of the days in July met the standard, it dropped drastically to 8 per cent in August and 7 in September. None of the days could meet the standards in October. Clearly, as we are approaching the onset of winter in October, pollution is building up. 

Says Roychowhury, who was a part of the expert group which finalised the draft index: “All signs tell us that as winter is approaching, the share of days meeting standards is reducing rapidly. This is an opportunity to plan in advance with short-term effective measures to prevent severe smog during winter.” 

In line with global action

India now joins the global league of countries like the US, China, Mexico, France and Hong that have implemented smog alert systems. These countries also implement pollution emergency measures to bring down the peak pollution levels. Indian cities need that roadmap as well. 

• Beijing: Similar public information system on air quality and health alert in Beijing has helped build public awareness and catalysed several changes. Beijing has also come up with a pollution contingency plan. On red alert days, kindergartens, primary and middle schools are closed; about 80 per cent of government-owned cars are taken off the roads; private cars are allowed on alternate days according to numbers plates; freight vehicles and those transporting material for construction sites are barred; polluting factories need to cut their emissions or shut down completely when the orange warning signal is issued; and construction sites have to halt excavation and demolition operations. On heavily polluted days, there is a ban on barbeques and fireworks. The 2013 smog forced Chinese cities to close some of the large factories. Smog episodes in Beijing have also led to restrictions on highway movement. Local governments in China are now liable to pay a fine if air pollution levels hit the critical mark. 

 In US cities, Rule 701 of air pollution emergency contingency actions (for PM and ozone) states that during stage 2-3 level of alert, school officials, local and state law enforcement agencies must be informed; public safety personnel should discontinue prolonged, vigorous outdoor exercises lasting longer than one hour; those with heart or lung diseases should be informed to avoid outdoor activities. Industrial units must be asked to reduce combined emissions by at least 20 per cent of normal weekday operations. For vehicles, the Rule asks to reduce fleet vehicle miles traveled by at least 20 per cent of normal week day operations; promotes ridesharing and telecommuting. It also says that liquid or solid fossil fuels cannot be burned in electric power generating systems unless a force majeure natural gas curtailment is in effect. It also recommends that all non-emergency driving be discontinued.

• Paris: During high pollution episodes, Paris authorities recommend drivers to postpone trips to Paris or bypass Paris city; use public transport; organise car-pooling; minimise combustion of high sulphur fuels in industry; and curtail industrial operations. During severe smog episodes, diesel cars are not allowed in the city. 

• Mexico: Phase 1 pollution alert requires cutting down of 30-40 per cent of industrial pollution; halting of 50 per cent of government vehicles; stopping of most polluting vehicles; and exemption of alternative fuel vehicles from restrictions. In phase 2 alert, schools are closed and one-day-a-week ban on vehicles is extended to two days. A phase 3 alert leads to closing down of industry in addition to other curtailments. 

Good step forward. Need implementation

The proposed air quality index is an important step forward to push aggressive and time-bound action in Indian cities to meet clean air standards and reduce public health risk, says Roychowdhury.

• Implement quickly: This proactive move should be taken forward quickly and implemented during the coming winter when pollution levels peak and health impacts aggravate. 

• Expand and improve air quality monitoring network across cities to generate real time air quality data to enable its implementation and feed the public information system. Ensure good quality monitoring. 

 Implement dissemination of AQI and health advisoryt hrough media and other communication channels.  

 Frame pollution emergency measures to reduce daily peak pollution. 

• Prepare short and medium term action plan in all cities to meet the air quality standards

• Initiate public awareness campaign to build support for pollution emergency measures

For more on this, please speak with Souparno Banerjee at 9910864339 / souparno@cseindia.org