Indian air ‘unfit to breathe’

A survey of air quality in India has claimed that millions of people are exposed to levels of toxic gases up to a staggering 35,000 times higher than would be considered safe in developed countries.

The report, Smoke Screen: Ambient Air Quality in India was published this week by the Chennai based NGO Community Environmental Monitoring and claims the air is unfit to breathe.

It details the results of 21 air samples taken from a variety of sites throughout the country between 2004 and 2006 and documents 45 chemicals including 13 known carcinogens.

28 of these chemicals were found at levels above those considered safe by the American Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in many cases thousands of times higher than the maximum safe level.

The Indian authorities have not set safe limits for these gases and as a result there is little official monitoring.

The samples were collected by volunteers using very basic equipment, then shipped to a sophisticated lab in California where they were analyzed using methodology approved by the EPA.

They were taken from residential areas and public thoroughfares, in or near industrial areas, effluent discharge channels, smouldering rubbish dumps and toxic waste facilities that include landfills and incinerators.

A sample taken downwind from a rubbish-burning site showed levels of the carcinogen butadiene were almost 35,000 higher than EPA standards would allow, while in a sample taken in a stream alongside a PVC plant dichloroethane levels were 32,000 higher.

Dichloroethane is a particularly toxic chemical which can damage the human immune system, nervous system, kidneys, liver and lungs.

Indeed, the chemicals found in the 21 samples can target virtually every system in the human body including the eyes, skin, and the respiratory, blood, cardiovascular and reproductive systems.

“After nearly a century of industrialization, as India is poised to nearly double its industrial capacity in the coming years, our nation is pathetically behind in terms of its infrastructure to safeguard its environment or the health of people from air pollution,” said Shweta Narayan of Community Environmental Monitoring.

“Air pollution monitoring and regulation is primitive, and the world’s fourth largest economy has no standards for some of the most toxic and commonly found air pollutants.”

Similar tests in the Pakistani capital of Karachi, recorded in the annual Pakistan Economic Survey which was also published this week, found dust and smoke particles are generally twice the world average and five times higher than the average in the developed world.

Water is also becoming increasingly toxic and there is a danger that within the next few years the country as a whole will not have enough clean water to support its population, said the report.

The increase in urban pollution was blamed on the increased use of dirty two-stroke diesel engines and unsophisticated, inefficient fuels.

Sam Bond

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