Occasionally, a conversation between two of my acquaintances begins with either asking, “What’s the AQI, bhai?”, a casual concern for the air quality in Mumbai.
AQI has been a topic of conversation in Mumbai for some time. And the conversation mirrors yet another set of Mumbai’s haves and have-nots: those who have acknowledged and acted upon improving Mumbai’s air quality. The have nots are the majority Mumbaikars still unaware that poor air quality poses a grave and undeniable risk to health and wellbeing.
What is AQI?
Air Quality Index (AQI) is an index for reporting air quality on a daily basis. It is a measure of the present local air quality, and how that air quality affects health.
The AQI level is determined by the presence of five major air pollutants – Sulfur Dioxide (SO2), Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), Carbon Monoxide (CO), Suspended Particulate Matter (SPM) smaller than 2.5 PM and 10 PM, and Ozone (O3). The higher the level of these pollutants, the poorer the air quality.
AQI is measured on a scale of 0–500, and represented in six categories: Good, Satisfactory, Moderately polluted, Poor, Very Poor, and Severe. Each category is indicated by a numerical range and colour code, and depicts associated health concerns. The index is not standardised globally, and countries measure air quality by their national standards. For instance, India’s National Air Quality Index (AQI), which was launched in 2014 under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, adds two air pollutants to the global standard, Ammonia and Lead, for AQI calculation.
Why is AQI important?
AQI is a window to air pollution in your region that directly impacts your health. High pollution levels pose a risk to humans, animals, birds, plant life, everything that’s alive. For the sake of this story, let’s focus on humans.
To quote the World Health Organization (WHO), “The health effects of air pollution are serious – one third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease are due to air pollution. This is having an equivalent effect to that of smoking tobacco, and much higher than, say, the effects of eating too much salt.”World Health Organization (WHO)
There you are. Your non-smoker status, healthy eating habits, regular exercise and active lifestyle may still not be enough to prevent you from being just another number consumed by disease and death directly related to Mumbai’s air pollution. Did we get your attention? If yes, let’s talk business.
How bad is the air quality in Mumbai?
In a first-of-its-kind initiative in January 2020, an interactive art installation, ‘Billboard that breathes’, was setup outside Bandra’s National College to demonstrate the deadly effect of air pollution on human health.
The pair of giant white-coloured lungs in the installation turned black in two weeks, mimicking the likely effect of air pollution on actual human lungs.
Mumbai regularly featured in the world’s 100 most polluted cities, but fell off the list in 2019 when it ranked 169. Don’t get your hopes too high, because our neighbour, Navi Mumbai, ranked 51st. If you are a resident of MMR (Mumbai Metropolitan Region) that includes Mumbai and eight other municipalities, you’re exposed to the hazards of air pollution as you commute from home to work, which in the case of many Mumbaikars involves more than one polluted municipality.
There’s more. Despite the improvement in Mumbai’s air quality over previous years, it remains considerably lower than WHO standards. It will take concentrated and consistent government, private and public efforts to bring the city’s air to breathable levels and make it stay there. For instance, despite all the talk about improved air quality during the pandemic, Mumbai was the third most polluted among 10 international cities for the period March 23-April 13, when the lockdown was total. That’s because even after shutting down the city for weeks, the air quality was nowhere close to safe levels. With the easing of lockdowns in Mumbai, it’s a matter of time before air pollution ramps up again to hazardous levels.
An eye-opening story suggested high pollution levels impact people’s immunity, making them more susceptible to Covid-19. It links the rise of Covid-19 cases in Mumbai and Delhi – among India’s most polluted cities and the two worst affected by the pandemic – to their air pollution levels. An expert noted that populations exposed to pollution over a prolonged period will find that their immunity is compromised, a view that is backed up by a recent study that showed clear evidence of people living in polluted places for a long time are more likely to die from coronavirus.
What about indoor air quality?
There’s increasing evidence to prove that IAQ or Indoor Air Quality in homes, offices, buildings, malls and public places can be up to 10 times worse than air quality outside. To make matters worse, the average person spends 90% time at home, work and other indoor settings. Surprised? We’re just getting started.
In case you didn’t know, poor ventilation, chemicals in household cleaners, asbestos in roofing and false ceiling, combustion caused by cooking oil and gas, central cooling, certain furniture made with pressed woods, and poorly maintained carpets, rugs and upholstery are all contributors to poor IAQ or Indoor Air Quality.
Help! How can I escape air pollution?
That’s easy. Discard air pollutants from your home, or better still, empty out your home altogether, considering there’s so much at home creating air pollution. Or, how about changing cities? Jokes apart, there’s no escaping air pollution, no matter where you go in India, which is the 10th most polluted nation in the world.
You, dear Mumbaikar, are part of the problem, and that’s why there can’t be a solution without you.
Now that you know the link between AQI, air pollution and your health, you might want to rethink your responsibilities towards aapli Mumbai, and become a true-blue agent of change. How you do that is a topic of conversation for another time.