Living with Particulate Matter

By Fizala Tayebulla 

Soon after Diwali, I had a chance encounter with a group of acquaintances, where the subject of discussion was unsurprisingly the condition of air quality in Delhi with reference to Diwali. While most of us in the group shared a mutual aversion to cracker bursting, Kunal, who is a permanent resident of Delhi uttered that ‘the smell of Diwali feels like home’ and even though he doesn’t participate in the ritual of cracker bursting, he loves the fireworks and…the smell. While this might sound like a benign expression of finding waning familiarity to festivities, it is, however, a ‘you-just-made-my-ears-bleed’ moment for anyone who has seen repetitive headlines on a newspaper about Delhi’s dangerous pollution levels – with or without Diwali.

Being part of academia, discussions on Air quality from the point of view of environment and development is organic. Our sensitivity to ‘Air’ innuendos in pedagogy may be a little higher than someone like Kunal, who’s made conscious of seriously polluted air only when air becomes visible in the form of thick arresting smog and driving in a winter morning becomes arduous.

Newspapers have recurring reports on air these days, building public consciousness. Irrespective of the degree of information on air pollution one is exposed to, most of us are coping in some way or the other (Notice an additional face cover some bikers and joggers wear? (Read more here: https://scroll.in/article/774137/as-delhi-chokes-why-arent-more-people-wearing-pollution-masks). This blog post is a personal commentary from the point of view of someone who is amidst academics pursuing research in discussions of Air Quality in cities, and how we manage to cope and survive Delhi air on a day to day basis.

Based on twelve monitoring stations in Delhi, the reported Air Quality Index (AQI) on Oct 31, 2017- twelve days after Diwali reads an index value of 352 (‘Very poor’) comprised mainly on PM 2.5 and PM 10 pollutants, which means ‘respiratory illness on prolonged exposure’ according to a mobile application ‘Sameer’ launched by Central Pollution Control Board. This is information I receive every morning at 8:00 am from this mobile application (refer to figure 1). Such a reading is unfortunately not a one-off event in a city like Delhi (Read more about Delhi air pollution trends here: https://delhiair.org/india-and-delhi/air-pollution-trends-and-patterns-in-delhi/).

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Figure 1 Screenshot of AQI notification from Sameer mobile application

A sectional break-up of the of sources of pollution and significance of words like PM 2.5 and PM 10 might help fathom the link between seemingly every day anodyne activities to Delhi’s infamous winter smog (courtesy to paying heed to air pollution only when visible). Particulate matters which are 2.5 microns or lesser are called PM 2.5 pollutants and are small particles originating from sources like dust, coal particles from power plants, home heating systems, car exhaust or from natural sources like pollen from plants. PM 2.5 is extremely concerning to our health owing to the size of the particles, as they can infiltrate deep into lungs and enter the bloodstream. Sampled air has been found to even contain heavy metal particles like arsenic, lead and cadmium. The other pollutant which is sized bigger than PM 2.5 is PM 10, which includes all particulate matter up to 10 microns. It is pertinent to understand that PM ranges change seasonally, for instance, similar atmospheric conditions may read the PM value differently in summer and in winter.

Being outdoor:

A start to the day with information of alarming AQI reports in the city is predictably concern causing. After much indisposed morose pondering, I consequently start off generating coping strategies, working with primary limitations of not having much control on transport (I mostly use public transport) as opposed to driving a car, in which case I would have certainly rolled up the windows and condition air inside the vehicle. At this junction, I take on to every carpool opportunity I can. Adopting such practices may not particularly be forfeiting, however, there are more vexing measures to cope with such as – giving up jogging or any outdoor workout.  A week after Diwali, when I discussed my plans to shift outdoor exercise to an alternate indoor regime, my friend informed me of an article which wrote about using an anti-pollution mask while working-out inside the four walls of a house (Read more here: https://cambridgemask.com/blog/exercise/ ). Here, the stated concern lies in ‘breathing in harder, deeper and faster’ while exercising. Alas, air pollution in Delhi has reached up to such a level that the degree of breath taken in is now to be measured, in case one is fretful of contracting respiratory problems… Sigh!

Being indoor:

I try to make up for all the polluted air I breathe in during home-work-home commute by making sure none of the windows is kept open in my house and to sleep only once the AC has ‘cleaned out’ the air of my sealed room. Part of regular chores which bear impacts of air pollution is house cleaning, including cleaning the layer of copious black dust that collects on the blades of the ceiling fan. Week after week. While there is no consistent candle burning scene inside the house, I guess there is no surprise as to what this layer of black nightmare is – ambient dust (if not Carbon Monoxide) which sets in a thick layer weekly even the following housework. Since I have a sense of the origin of the obscure layer of heavy dust (as mentioned afore), AC is used for a quasi-air filter system every night, which plausibly can be an expensive practice running throughout the year (sans harsh winter days in Delhi). But I suppose it is the better of the two evils, given that the alternative is a night of wheeze suffused sleep.

Beyond indoor:

Parallel to the steps that can be taken at an individual level, one is also met with relational resonance in advertising media. The recent upsurge of availability of ‘pollution tackling’ products in the market, like washable and reusable masks, air purifying machines for households, and air pollution and monitoring mobile applications is a reasonable indicator that air pollution is a concern enough for a lucrative idea for start-up companies (Choudhury, 2017). The evidence of its successes and proof that air pollution has created public consciousness can be seen in everyday life where one is bound to see at least one other person using a pollution-mask (refer to figure 2) which hasn’t been a typical Indian practice even five years ago.

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Figure 2 Street-worker using mask (Source: Fizala Tayebulla/ CUES 2017)

 

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Figure 3 Popular brands of hair care using ‘environmental defence’ as a type of shampoo

Besides products that are available in market straightly serving air-pollution-tackling means like an air mask or an air purifier, there are other products falling into the category of mainstream personal care/beauty like a bottle of shampoo (refer to figure 3), lotion, sunblock cream and so on, which makes one realize that air pollution isn’t a vague lurking threat but it has trickled into the realm of private/personal that it can now dictate terms of what brand or type of hair care we should spend our money on! (Read more here: http://www.harpersbazaar.com/uk/beauty/skincare/news/g37581/how-to-protect-skin-from-pollution-products/ )

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Figure 4 Snapshot from video of advertisement against air pollution

Talking about the role of media in shaping perception related to pollution, I came across a trending video on a social media platform. Air pollution being projected in 2030 where using an ‘O2 kit’ has become an embedded part of daily life and the only window view is smog and factory towers producing effluence.


(Link here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bj-al0OdOSU)

Now that there is a variety of ‘anti-pollution’ masks to select from ranging from single carbon masks to winter masks (designed for smog respiration), the society is perceptibly concerned about quality of air we are breathing and the invisible hand of the market caters to anxieties translated to demands, in other words, the concept of such an advertisement of projected future is not as highly aligned with fiction as it is with reality.

Speaking of reality and taking stock of conceivable practical methods one can adapt to live healthily in the city – Singapore was recently in the news for its laudable decision to focus efforts on banning sale of private cars by February 2018 to conserve land space being occupied by cars (currently at 12%) so that the ultimate growth rate of cars can be regulated at 0.25%. The ban to-be imposed is planned to go hand in hand with billion-dollar investment in public transport. (Read more here: http://www.businessinsider.com/singapore-ban-cars-february-2018-2017-10?IR=T) In India, on the other hand, Delhi had a recorded 11% city land occupied by parked vehicles in 2011, and there were talks of regulating vehicular growth by hiking parking fees, besides applying green norms. Statistically, the total number of vehicles in Delhi is more than the combined total of vehicles in Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata. On an average over 1,000 vehicles are added to the city roads every day. In 2016, Delhi was found to be the ‘most polluted city in the world’ although the title changed to the second position in 2017, the city nonetheless has become a debilitating place to live in.

This personal account (read: lament) can go on endlessly, with more observations and truths of pollution impacts on daily life, but only if I had a dollar for every cracker the kids in my neighbourhood burst, would there have been any meaning to an endless citation of events. But Delhi moves on, with no lesser people or traffic on the road, with no lesser spirit nonetheless. Maybe I will too… perhaps in a different city.

 

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