CHENNAI: Even as the correlation between air pollution and COVID-19 is being widely debated, Chennai's air quality has become unhealthy and in all likelihood will worsen further taking into consideration the weather forecasts and Deepavali pollution. Should the National Green Tribunal (NGT) order banning the sale of firecrackers over poor air quality be applicable to Chennai too?
The Air Quality Index (AQI) for Chennai on Tuesday was 135, which is considered "moderately polluted" as per Central Pollution Control Board air quality standards. The associated health impacts of such air may cause breathing discomfort to people with lung diseases such as asthma, and discomfort to people with heart disease, children and older adults.
The air quality in Royapuram and Manali is particularly "poor" with the AQI breaching the 200 mark.
The principal bench of the NGT on Monday unequivocally imposed a total ban on sale and use of firecrackers in all "cities and towns where the average ambient air quality in November last year was "poor or worse". Only green crackers - considered to be less polluting - will be sold in cities and towns where air quality is "moderate". The tribunal also restricted the timing of use to two hours, as specified by the state, "due to COVID".
The order also directs the central and state pollution control boards to regularly monitor compliance and compile air pollution data from November 9 to November 30, put it on their websites and "file a consolidated report".
The New Indian Express analysed the official air pollution data of Chennai for November 2019 and found that for several days the city recorded "poor" and even "very poor" air quality. For instance, Velachery, which is relatively a less polluted area compared to Manali or Alandur, recorded poor air quality for six days, with pollution levels of PM 2.5 peaking to 277 μg/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter). On November 8, the station clocked 324 μg/m3 which is considered "very poor".
In Manali, air pollution data is available only for six days, of which air quality during three days is "very poor", two days "poor" and one day "moderate". The other CPCB station in Alandur has also recorded seven days of poor air quality.
Shweta Narayan, coordinator at Healthy Energy Initiation India, told The New Indian Express, "We will never get a true sense of Chennai air pollution with three air quality monitors. How can the average be calculated if data is not available for more than half a month? It's a known fact that air quality deteriorates in Chennai from November to January. I feel even the NGT order has come a little too late since the bulk of firecracker production and sales would have been already over and monitoring and compliance would be a challenge."
Several health studies have been conducted worldwide on how air pollution deepens the COVID-19 crisis. Director of Public Health TS Selvavinayagam had told The New Indian Express that all respiratory tract infections, including COVID-19, will increase when there is bad air quality. "We have to keep air pollution under control even during the festival days. We are increasing the monitoring for COVID control. The high risk population with underlying conditions like heart diseases should remain indoors when Deepavali smoke engulfs the air."
When contacted, a senior official in Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) told The New Indian Express that Chennai was not among the 122 non-attainment cities included in National Clean Air Programme (NCAP), which means air pollution in the city is not so worrisome.
"Yes, it's true that three CPCB monitors are not enough to assess a city's air pollution. This was the precise reason why the Tamil Nadu government has installed 25 continuous air quality monitors at a cost of Rs 45 crores recently in the state. In Chennai, additional monitors were installed at Royapuram, Arumbakkam and Kodungaiyur. They are already linked to CPCB monitors to generate AQI," said the official.
On the NGT order, the government has already limited the timings for the bursting of crackers to two hours, said the TNPCB official.