A harried parent called a few weeks ago. She wanted to know if pollution levels in Delhi were bad and, if so, how bad. The answer was simple and obvious. But why did she need to know that? Her daughter’s prestigious school (which I shall leave unnamed) had sent a circular to parents saying the school authorities planned to shift to air-conditioned buses because they were worried about air pollution. She wanted to know if this was the right decision.
My answer changed. The fact is that pollution levels are high and we need to find ways to bring them under control. But this does not mean the rich can find ways to avoid breathing the air so as to keep pollution at bay. I asked her if the school was also planning to build an air-conditioned funnel for walkways and an air-conditioned gymnasium so that children would not be exposed to foul air.
It’s unfortunate that instead of fighting pollution and demanding change, the city’s rich and famous – many drive big cars and run them on subsidised diesel – think they can opt out of this “dirty” system and even generate their own air to breathe.
But it is not so easy. Air pollution – and, in fact, environmental degradation more generally – is a great leveller. The fact is that there is more than enough evidence that in-vehicle pollution is often a greater risk than the air outside, however foul. And worse, air-conditioned vehicles are more polluted than those with no air-conditioning. A recent study from China (where pollution levels are certainly bad) shows that the air inside air-conditioned buses was dangerously high on air toxins like benzene, toluene and xylene. Their levels were higher than in the open bus. This is easy to understand.
The pollution inside a vehicle is caused by air intake (what the vehicle takes through vents from the outside) as well as “self-pollution” (vehicle exhaust in the passenger cabin because of leakage). In air-conditioned and “sealed” vehicles, this trapped air then circulates and gets even more concentrated in terms of exposure than just ordinary but dirty air. The air-conditioner system is not designed to filter bad air. In California, which also has a serious ambient air quality problem, a study found that children in school buses with closed windows had much higher and unacceptable exposure to air pollutants. The exhaust concentrations inside the vehicle were 2.5 times higher when the windows were closed against when they were open. So if you think you are “safe” inside your car, my advice is: roll down the window and don’t smell the air. Instead, scream that pollution levels are hurting you and your child’s health.
We also think that we can run away from pollution by moving to greener areas with less traffic in our cities. We can find our island of clean air. But think again.
In heavy-traffic areas, particularly along main roads, air pollution is high. In most cities, the growing use of diesel is leading to hazardous levels of nitrogen oxide. This toxin is particularly high in heavy-traffic zones and main roads. We know this. But we do not know that there is invisible danger around: ozone, a gas that directly affects our lungs. Ozone is a strange creature, because it is not found where you would expect it. High levels of nitrogen oxides and volatile hydrocarbons interact with sunlight to form ozone. But as nitrogen oxide then reacts with ozone and mops it up – cleans it up – this gas drifts away to areas where there is little pollution. Therefore, ozone levels are high in the green areas of the city where pollution is low. This pollutant, formed from the toxic exhaust of our vehicles, looks for safe havens where the air is clean. No wonder, then, that the limited studies conducted in Delhi – where there are ample sunny and hot days – found ozone levels highest in the green areas of Civil Lines in north Delhi and Siri Fort in south Delhi.
Similarly, the powerful rich of the world believe they can survive climate change. The rich may have the financial resources to cope with the weather- and climate-related disasters the world is seeing today. But this is because global temperature increase is still only 0.8° C, while another 0.8° C is in the works. This is before climate change spirals out of control and when global average temperature rises reach 3° C and above. At such levels, even the extremely rich will find it difficult to survive.
So, let us be clear that there is no escape route. We cannot run. We have to stay and fight. And we have to win. It is in our interest.
Postscript: The school, I have been told, has gone ahead with air-conditioned buses. Sadly, literate Indians are clearly environmentally illiterate.