Air quality in all 15 locations sampled from across the city between May and July 2019 was unhealthy, with levels of PM 2.5 in the worst affected areas nearly three times the national standard of 60 ug/m3, according to a study released by Healthy Energy Initiative and Doctors for Clean Air-Tamil Nadu. The widespread nature of pollution and the fact that the samples were taken in summer highlights how the current pollution crisis is neither an isolated nor a seasonal incident. The study analysed 24-hour air samples for PM 2.5 and a host of heavy metals.
The densely populated areas of North Chennai were worst affected by dust and heavy metal pollution owing to the high concentration of polluting industries, oil refinery and thermal power plants in Manali and Ennore.
Spiking pollution levels
Four out of the five highest PM2.5 levels were recorded in North Chennai with Kuruvimedu, near NTPC Vallur’s coal ash pond, registering the highest levels at 187 μg/ m3.
T.Nagar, Chennai’s ‘smart city’ neighbourhood, also made it to the top 5 polluted neighbourhoods with PM2.5 at 167 μg/m3.
Apart from PM2.5, elevated levels of heavy metals such as manganese, nickel, lead and crystalline silica were found. Manganese and lead are neurotoxins, while crystalline silica is a respiratory irritant, and can cause silicosis, a fatal disease generally known to only affect people exposed at workplaces.
“Health studies have shown a significant association between exposure to fine particles and premature mortality. Other significant effects include aggravation of the respiratory and cardiovascular disease, lung disease, decreased lung function, asthma attacks and heart attacks” said Dr Hissamudin Papa, founder and director of HUMA Hospitals in Chennai.
‘Include Chennai in NCAP’
The Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Climate Change in 2018 launched ‘National Clean Air Programme (NCAP)’ to curb air pollution in various Indian cities. Across India, 122 cities have been identified as “Non-Attainment Cities.” Under the NCAP, these cities aim to reduce pollution levels by 20% – 30%. Despite Chennai’s perennial pollution problem, the city has not been included in the NCAP which will force it to reduce pollution to acceptable levels.
Chennai is unlike any other city in India, as it is the only city with three mega sea ports within the metropolitan area and the associated movement of heavy diesel vehicles, 3300 MW of coal thermal plants, a 10 million tonne per annum oil refinery, high vehicular traffic, and two massive smouldering garbage dumps.
“The high density of air pollution sources and the perennial issues with air quality in Chennai ought to have secured it a place as a non-attainment city. Chennai should be included in the NCAP so that a concrete plan is executed to clear up Chennai’s air,” said Dr. G. Chandrasekar, a general surgeon representing Doctors For Clean Air – Tamil Nadu.
(This article is based on a Press Release by Health Energy Initiative and Doctors for Clean Air — Tamil Nadu and has been republished here with minimal edits.)