Dirty air and kitchen politics

Our Moms and Grannies will rebel. They have just about upgraded their kitchens from smoky chulhas to clean lpg burners. 

But now the newly crunched official numbers on sprayers of foul fumes in six Indian cities have accused their kitchen lpg of half of the pm2.5 in Delhi’s air!  What’s cooking, Mom?

Your kitchen exhaust is harming us more than the vehicle exhaust! Vehicles, they say, are a mere 7 percent of tiny deadly particles even at the traffic sites in Delhi! This teaser is a selective leak of the much awaited source apportionment and pollution inventory study of the ministry of environment and forests. Refinery’ and auto industry have hyped carefully selected data in public forums to prove vehicles are the cleanest and must be left alone.

But the study’s patron, ministry of environment is silent.  What’s taking so long to release this study? Surely five years and crores of rupees have not been spent only to list solar powered kitchens as the priority over the particle traps fitted vehicle exhaust pipes.


Previews of what to expect from the study have baffled all.  Selective quotes from the study show nearly in all cities vehicles spew a maximum of over 10-20 per cent of the pm10 with an exception of Chennai with 48 per cent. They say blame particle laden air on road dust and construction activities. As the dust storm brews in the in tea cups, not a word on the share of vehicular pollution load in the pollution inventory of other pollutants -- especially nox and volatile organic compounds that are the recipe for rising ozone.

The environment ministry cannot let air pollution science take such a bad hit. As the country aims for the great leap to launch itself in the league with other auto hubs of the world we cannot afford to get the conclusion of this valuable study wrong.  If we have waited this long we are prepared to wait a little longer for public scrutiny and to fix the misleading numbers and distorted interpretations that have crept in to protect the vehicles and not public health. 

Take out a little time to check how regulators everywhere have used such studies for rule making. It is common for road dust, agricultural burning, and construction to dominate pm pollution load. This is not unique to India. National pollution inventory of the US shows vehicular pm2.5 is a tiny 3 percent.  Yet they have set the toughest emissions benchmark.  Naturally, they have considered variation in vehicles contribution to pm in cities, toxicity of emissions, health costs and other killer pollutants, especially nox and vocs and their potential to form ozone. California had ranked a small amount of air borne diesel pm high on the priority list of control as it represented 70 per cent of the cancer risk. We do not even look at those risks.

The auto industry and refineries are squeamish about giving special attention to vehicles. But they must concede that per breathe we inhale 3-4 time more pollutants than the ambient air concentration. And most of this is from the vehicles on road and close to the roads. Exposure is highest on road and upto 500- 1500 meter from the roads. This would include nearly all of densely populated neighbourhoods in our cities and maximum number of city dwellers.  Vehicular fumes dominate our breathe as opposed to power plants smoke. We have seen in the six-city assessment the World Bank that vehicles may emit 50 per cent of the direct pm but are responsible for 70 per cent of the pm exposure. 

Even this new study has found higher nox load than the pm10 load in our cities – 147 tonnes per day of PM10 vs 460 tonnes of NOx per day in Delhi! But the conspiracy of silence shrouds vehicles share of nox load. Industry is also hoping that the vast amount of secondary particulates that the study has found – sulphate and nitrate particles that form in the air, will detract attention from vehicle exhaust. But our air quality regulators have not explained that the gases that form these particles in the air also come largely from the vehicles!

Right now, an inter-ministerial group is examining this study. The terms of this scrutiny must attach primacy to public health. I recall -- when the terms of reference for the previous Auto Fuel Policy committee were drawn up in 2002 public health was not even on its agenda. The committee report had played up the uncertainties in health studies and said our bodies can rely on a good ‘nose’ job of cleaning up our breathe.

This time we need more intelligent solutions. This study is expected to influence the future technology roadmap for vehicles and fuels and the new investments in the sector. The environment ministry has to consider all the health studies carried out under its aegis and also those carried out globally. Its own sponsored 2008 study shows that 33 per cent of Delhiites has two times more respiratory symptoms than cleaner areas; 40 per cent of Delhiites have reduced lung function that correlate well with particulate pollution; in great many people lung cells have already undergone changes indicating progress of underlying diseases in the air ways and inner lungs; our elderly, children, women, asthmatics and poor are more vulnerable.

Admit and accept –vehicles are a special problem. Acknowledge the hard evidences from studies that show the insidious link between vehicular fumes and respiratory health; inflammation; heart attack; stroke, cancer…...  Since the last auto fuel policy the scientists globally, have tracked the biological effects, and physiological changes in our bodies under stress from air pollution to provide hard evidences.

National government must not confuse its own role. Only last year the environment ministry has tightened the air quality standards; taken on board a much larger number of health threatening pollutants and air toxics for regulations. Why is then everyone fixated on one set of data on coarse particles – pm10! It is the responsibility of the national government to cut the ‘national risk’ from all criteria, toxic and hazardous pollutants that are on its schedule and under Air Act. The national government will have to set emissions benchmark for pollution sources to enable cities to reduce health risks from combustion sources.

It is city’s job to find cost effective measures to douse road dust, construction dust, and open burning.  A part of natural dust is also uncontrollable. Cities will look at their own choices and feasibility to cut these to meet their clean air obligation. But it must not happen that as the cities begin to expand public transport, walking and cycling to cut vehicular emissions, inaction of national government increases the daily dose of toxins on roads and snuffs people out on buses, on pedal and on foot and the rest of the vulnerable in the city.

Cities have not been given powers to set emissions standards even as vehicle fume hangs heavy on the densely populated urban core and along the busy roads. The national government is liable to tighten the vehicle emissions standards and make them uniform across the country and set early deadlines for the future progress to reduce the risk to public health.

Let us, for once, get serious and not embarrass science.