Monitoring Air Quality in India

Monitoring air quality in India: The first step to clean air

“In many parts of the world, the lack of air quality data delays decisive action and perpetuates unnecessary human suffering.”

These words by the CEO of IQAir ring true in many ways, especially when it comes to air quality in India.

Last month, the Swiss tech company released its 6th Annual World Air Quality Report, pulling back the curtain on the abysmal state of India’s air. The report was prepared using real-time air quality data gathered from regulatory air quality monitoring stations and low-cost air quality sensors deployed by government bodies, research institutes, universities, and other civil society stakeholders. Over the course of 2023, data was collected from over 30,000 PM2.5 monitors/sensors located across 7,812 cities in 134 countries, regions, and territories.

The world over, clean air is a rarity – only 7 countries met the WHO annual average PM2.5 guideline. In South Asia, clean air is even harder to come by – of the top 10 most polluted countries, 4 were in South Asia. In India, clean air is akin to a blue moon. The country ranked the third most polluted globally, outdone only by its neighbours Bangladesh and Pakistan. Of the 50 most polluted cities globally, 42 were in India. In the top 100, 83 were Indian.

Increased air pollution awareness in India, combined with decisive action, could not come sooner. Regions like Africa still have inadequate access to air quality data, but India does not face the same challenges, as is evident by India’s overrepresentation in the IQAir report. Rather, in India, it is more important to plug gaps in air quality monitoring so that governments, organisations, and even households can take targeted action to clean up the air. Since air quality can vary dramatically between different microenvironments, this involves monitoring both ambient and indoor air quality in every possible microenvironment. Contextual knowledge about the major air pollutants in India can also help people take appropriate action to protect vulnerable groups of the population.

Air quality in India

The revelations made by IQAir’s report aren’t entirely surprising. Even in 2019, a report by the Health Effects Institute revealed that the rate of deaths due to particulate matter (PM) pollution was the highest in India. This is a problem of poor air both outdoors and indoors. In 2017, air pollution caused more than 1.1 million premature deaths; of these, 56% were caused by outdoor PM2.5 pollution, while the rest were linked to household air pollution.

Pushing air pollution limits in India: Key enablers and mitigation strategies

Over the past few decades, industries in India have expanded, cities have become more densely populated, and the number of automobiles on our roads has skyrocketed. Population increases have also driven up energy consumption. Naturally, these anthropogenic activities have increased the emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) and other polluting gases and particles. Largely, the emission of major air pollutants in India can be attributed to 7 sectors: transportation, industries, agriculture, thermal power generation, waste management including biomass burning, domestic activities, and construction and demolition waste. The pollutants released include particulate matter, oxides of sulphur, oxides of nitrogen, methane, and non-methane volatile organic compounds.

It would be unfair to say that nothing has been done to enforce air pollution standards in India. Air pollution awareness in India has led to the development of standards and policy measures designed to meet those standards. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change launched the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) in 2019 with the aim to reduce PM10 concentrations by up to 40% by 2025-26. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) cooperates with the respective state pollution control boards (SPCBs) to monitor and regulate ambient air quality standards in different parts of India. Accordingly, sector-wise measures have been introduced in India’s cities.

In the transport sector, compressed natural gas (CNG), biodiesel, and bioethanol consumption have been promoted in varying degrees as an alternative to fossil fuel-based petrol and diesel. Odd-even traffic measures to limit vehicular pollution, the promotion of electric vehicles, and improvements in fuel and vehicle quality have also contributed to improving air quality in India. In the industrial sector, Online Continuous Emission Monitoring Systems (OCEMS) monitor discharges from factories. To reduce household pollution from dirty cooking fuels, the use of LPG has been promoted. Such measures have helped improve air quality in India. Nonetheless, challenges remain in the form of infrastructure, financing, industrial relocation away from urban centres, and behavioural patterns.

Research has shown that improving air quality in India, as is the case elsewhere, necessitates four steps: problem identification, policy formulation, implementation, and control strategies. As such, meeting air pollution standards in India calls for air quality modelling, emission inventories, monitoring pollutant concentrations, and addressing pollutant sources. These tools require large amounts of data, which are best obtained through real-time monitoring across diverse microenvironments.

Air pollution standards in India

The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has developed outdoor air pollution standards in India. These standards are referred to as the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) and differ for ecologically sensitive areas compared to industrial, residential, rural, and other areas.

The annual average of specific pollutant concentrations in ambient air is mentioned below:

[Pollutant: annual avg. concentration in industrial, residential, rural and other areas; in ecologically sensitive areas]

Sulphur dioxide (μg/m3): 50; 20

Oxides of nitrogen (μg/m3): 40; 30

PM10 (μg/m3): 60; 60

PM2.5 (μg/m3): 40; 40

Ozone (μg/m3): 100; 100

When it comes to indoor air quality standards in India, ISHRAE, or the Indian Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers, has set thresholds for different parameters. Specifically, ISHRAE has instituted standards for indoor environmental quality (IEQ), of which indoor air quality is one component. These standards are also classified into Classes A, B, and C to represent aspirational values, acceptable values, and minimum acceptable values, respectively.

Here are ISHRAE’s threshold values for indoor air quality (IAQ) parameters:

[IAQ parameter: Class A; Class B; Class C]

CO2 (ppm): ambient + 350; ambient + 500; ambient + 700

PM2.5 (µg/m3): <15; <25; <25

CO (ppm): <2; <9: <9

TVOC (µg/m3): <200; <500; <500

PM10 (µg/m3): <50; <100; <100

CH2O (µg/m3): <30; <100; –

SO2 (µg/m3): <40; <80; –

NO2 (µg/m3): <40; <80; –

O3 (µg/m3): <50; <100; –

Knowledge is power

The onus and power to control outdoor air pollution in India is largely in the hands of the government and industry. This is reflected in the explicit ambient air quality standards set by central authorities like the CPBC and the implementation of policies at the central, state, and municipal levels.

Indoor air quality, however, is not regulated by national standards. Industry bodies like ISHRAE have outlined acceptable thresholds, while builders, building owners, building managers, and inhabitants bear the responsibility to ensure that indoor environmental quality does not harm human health. Most people spend a large majority of their time indoors, and with the responsibility to monitor indoor air dispersed the way it is, it becomes extremely important to install air quality monitoring devices in as many enclosed spaces as possible. After all, only when air quality is monitored and quantified can it be improved.

The IQAir report paints a bleak picture of air quality in India, but it doesn’t have to be this way. While citizens must demand clean air from authorities, some of the power also rests in their own hands to control the air quality in the enclosed environments that they inhabit.

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