Tuesday, April 15, 2014

High levels of RSPM in Pune air: A health hazard

If you or any of your acquaintances staying in the city of Pune in India have ever suffered from a lung infection or disease, then it may not be "just a co-incidence". Read on to find out why.

How it all began:
Since the very first days I started my job as a Software Developer in Pune around seven years ago, I used to feel the heaviness in the air here. It was especially so, since I came from a small city in Gujarat where, thankfully, we still have some green areas left.

I soon learned from my colleagues at office that coughs, colds and infections were a frequent occurrence among those coming from smaller towns. Years passed by, and this menace of air pollution kept its pace with the city's progress in Information Technology. Quite recently, a close acquaintance of mine had a major pulmonary lung infection, and that was when I started wondering whether its really worth the pay to continue working here.

Strangely enough, people here have become accustomed to it. Lots of my friends accept this as an occupational hazard, and who cares if you are sick for a few days if the firms pay you the top level salaries in the country. Before taking any decisions, I decided to do a quick research on how serious is the issue.

One of the accepted measures of air pollution is the level of RSPM (Respirable Suspended Particulate Matter) in air. These are air particles smaller than 10 micrometers in diameter that can cause serious damage to your lungs and respiratory system. According to this TOI article, Pune has the highest levels of RSPM in the state.

To verify current RSPM levels, I glanced at the air pollution data provided by MPCB (Maharashtra Pollution Control Board) for the last few days. According to the state board's statistics, RSPM levels at Karve Road, a busy area in Pune is consistently above the acceptance levels by a margin of 50%. Not just that, but the acceptance levels in Residential areas is 100 ug/m3, whereas that of Industrial areas is 150 ug/m3. Now, the average RSPM reading at Karve Road is 162 ug/m3 (which is more than the industrial limit!)

Karve Road (Pune)

For benchmarks, I also had a look at RSPM levels at other cities of Maharashtra like Sangli and Nashik. While occasionally the RSPM readings were above limit in these cities too, the average was certainly below the Residential threshold. Furthermore, even the RSPM levels at Mumbai, the industrial hub of India was found to be lower than that of Pune!



Sion (Mumbai)

Health Effects of Particulate Matter:
Now, what does it really mean to your respiratory health if RSPM levels are high? While finding answer to this question, my research led me to EPA's website. EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) is United State's foremost institute that deals with environmental health hazards. According to EPA, the size of the air particles is directly linked to their potential for causing health problems. In the words of EPA:

"Small particles less than10 micrometers in diameter pose the greatest problems, because they can get deep into your lungs, and some may even get into your bloodstream. Exposure to such particles can affect both your lungs and your heart."

Numerous scientific studies have linked particle pollution exposure to a variety of problems, including:
  • premature death in people with heart or lung disease,
  • nonfatal heart attacks,
  • irregular heartbeat,
  • aggravated asthma,
  • decreased lung function, and
  • increased respiratory symptoms, such as irritation of the airways, coughing or difficulty breathing.

Now, for anyone staying in Pune for long time, its not hard to guess what might have caused this. Firstly, there are lots of under-construction buildings in Pune which causes a substantial increase in the amount of dust in air, thus increasing the RSPM levels.
Secondly, the rampant increase in the amount of vehicles, coupled by the fact that all auto-rickshaws and city buses are using pollutant fueling engines instead of using the greener CNG has resulted in a massive increase in carbon gases, again raising the RSPM levels.

Conclusion and Remedial measures:
While I'm no expert on Green Technology, but common sense suggests that curbing the activities causing the rise in RSPM levels or making alternative arrangements might save the day for Pune before its too late.
The first thing that should happen is improvisation in public transport system. Need of the hour is for the government and public to come together and join hands to resolve this. Also needed are steps to curb dust pollution caused by under construction buildings.
Whilst your lungs are still functioning in these high RSPM levels for Nature is benevolent, but do remember that there is a limit on her benevolence too! Act now, before its too late.

Pune has highest RSPM, Nox concentration in state - The Times of India
RSPM level is 3 times more than permissible - The Times of India
What Is the Size of Respirable Suspended Particulate Matter RSPM - Ask.com

Health | Particulate Matter | Air & Radiation | US EPA
Maharashtra Pollution Control Board