Visiting India – In need for Clean Air

I had the chance to visit New Delhi and Agra in India due to an annual conference that we had to assist. I was well informed about the poor air quality in the area, so I was prepared to breathe some pollution. I have read many articles and heard many testimonials about the situation there but still, a visit in situ helps someone understand the issue on a whole new level.

Some weeks ago, I published an article on “Why is Air Pollution Invisible” and I think during my visit to India I experienced all of the points clearly.

Immediately, once you come out of the aircraft, you can smell the air pollution. It is everywhere, indoors and outdoors. Even waiting in the immigration line for clearance you can smell it. I didn’t have the instrument in hand at that point in order to measure the concentrations, but from my experience and because air pollution was visible due to high levels, I estimate concentrations of 100μg/m3 of PM2.5. I want to make clear that I was still indoors.

From there, I headed to the hotel in a taxi. As you may imagine, the air quality was not better, but quite the opposite as the fumes from the relentless amount of unregulated vehicles were spewing everything they had in their engines. Particles of all sizes and gas fumes. Interestingly, more than 90% of the vehicle in the streets were occupied by only one person, the driver. On top of the air pollution in the streets, you can add noise pollution as the use of car horns is a tradition in India.

I managed to arrive at the hotel after a small accident with the car (no damages) where I took the air quality monitor out of my luggage in order to measure the conditions in the room. Unfortunately, it wasn’t safe either. The mean PM2.5 concentration during my stay was around 50μg/m3.

The hotel had some small air purifiers in the hallway, but the coverage area was too big for them to handle properly. I looked at the filters and they were pure black, who knows for how long they were running without replacement.

On day two, my nose didn’t register the smell of smoke anymore. I was one of them! Unable to smell the pollution and consequently remind myself that I need to find clean air. This is what happens to locals that don’t have options, eventually, they forget.

For simplicity, here you can see my PM2.5 exposure for the last date of my trip before coming back home. However, the particle counts for the smaller particles like 0.3μm and 0.5μm, which get lost with mass concentration values, were even higher reaching counts of around 400,000,000 particles per m3 and 40,000,000 particles per m3, respectively. By the way, according to the locals, I visited New Delhi during a good AQ time.

Enough with the AQ data, we know it is really bad, my main question was where all this air pollution comes from. Most people will tell me that it is due to vehicle emissions and domestic burning. Still, it doesn’t make sense though because the weather was warm and there was no need to burn logs for heating. Additionally, the issue was persisting all day and night. So after a conversation with a local professor, he pointed out that the main source was waste management. Basically, they burn garbage and these eternal fires create the smog that persists in the city and makes people really sick.

I talked about the car horns, but you will also hear many people cough. It’s normal as their lungs are suffering from chronic exposure to toxic air pollutants.

There is some good news, though. Once the local people realize the source of pollution as I did, they can fix it. New Delhi is populated by 15,000,000 people and I understand that the amount of waste they generate is equivalent to that number, but the management of the waste can’t be “burn it, it will disappear” because it doesn’t. Finally, vehicles need some kind of control and annual revisions that will force the drivers to maintain the car in optimal conditions like EURO 6 compliance does in Europe.


One thought on “Visiting India – In need for Clean Air

  1. Hi Sotirios,

    have you seen this new study that explains the unicity of the air pollution of Delhi?

    I think that you are too optimistic in your judgements. 15 millions of people pouring high concentrations of polluting particles in the city combined with the huge amounts of smoke coming from the surroundings and the chemical reactions happening due to the microclimate of the area make fixing the issue extremely complicated. You need a real revolution at every level of society in order to achieve some serious results.

    At a smaller level we are living similar living conditions here in Athens, sadly with no engagement at all from the population nor the authorities in order to fix things. As you understood well in Delhi, people after only 1 day can’t even smell the pollution anymore, so the invisible killer remains invisible. When you forget about the issue, it’s easy to ignore its consequences. Highly polluting old cars circulate freely in Greece, wood burning stove keep on increasing dramatically in numbers, phytochemical reactions in the air keep on making pollution worse, and the numbers are on the increase instead of decrease. Summer wildfires make things even worse even in a season when particulate matter could be low.

    The truth is that Air Pollution is now increasing again, despite the numbers that show how since the 90’s it has decreased. We need huge campaigns to inform the broad population and huge investments to electrify our life. Burning stuff must become a thing of the past right now. But Greece is not doing it yet, and India will not do it for much longer even. That’s the sad reality. And while we keep on procrastinating, the Earth is warming up much faster than scientists forecasted, thing that will make eradicating air pollution even harder. Let’s not forget that.

    Sorry for the negativity of this comment, but we must all be very realistic. What is coming is a huge challenge under every aspect. We must prepare for the worst. Only the total halt of every form of burning TODAY, or better, YESTERDAY, could give us hope that India or Greece will see a better Air Quality in the next years.

    Liked by 1 person

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