HOLD YOUR BREATH

About that New York Times story on Delhi’s unbreathable air…

Quartz india
Quartz india

The snow was packed loosely and ready to rumble. Gardiner Harris checked his watch and set off a controlled explosion. And now the avalanche.

Ever since his dispatch—Holding Your Breath in India—appeared in The New York Times, the Indian media has gone into a tizzy, with The Times of India leading the vanguard. These Quentins would have you believe that Delhi, a megapolis of 25 million inhabitants, is a dungeon full of gimps. The water is undrinkable, the land is unusable; and the air—well, the air is unbreathable. The message is clear: Leave or die.

Using each one of his 1,771 rusted and pointed words as though they were a sloshed acupuncturist’s needles, Harris set about pricking the average Dilliwallah at all the wrong places. Then he went for the jugular—weaving personal anecdotes into the story that otherwise resembled the omnibus edition of a drain inspector’s report. At long last the great Paul Bowles has competition in the Travel Horror Lit category. Mind you, anecdotes have a surreal effect on the reader, whisking him away to the twilight zone where concrete facts are allowed to mingle freely with creative writing. This is the reason why homeopathy has its aficionados in this country—“I’m telling you, it worked for me. Ma kasam (swear on my mom).”

There is little doubt, though—and for Dilliwallahs less than little—that Harris’ Huns-are-here piece, when scrunched into a ball acceptable to the nearest wastepaper bin, dribbles enough juicy truth.

Delhi is polluted. This is a fact. Yes, we have seen the mighty Yamuna that now resembles an angry columnist frothing at the mouth. Yes, we know that a third of Dilliwallahs live in slums. Yes, all 25 million of us wish we had water the purity of Bisleri to drink, space the quality of Lutyens’ to live, and air the quality of Ooty to breathe. But personal anecdotes do not make a story watertight. If that were the case, all of us would have believed Congress minister Jairam Ramesh when he held for show a fistful of Union Carbide soil and hollered, “Look, I’m holding this and I’m still alive!”.

 Personal anecdotes do not make a story watertight. 

Remember, also, that no matter how much we cried about the harmful, deathly effects of smoking, the cigarette companies were pummelled into accepting the truth only after scientific evidence was thrown at them. “My grandfather smoked and he died of cancer” was a statement the fat cats at Phillip Morris giggled at; “Here, you sods, are 1,001 peer-reviewed scientific papers that prove smoking causes cancer” made them leap to safety and cower behind a lamppost. Anecdotes make you emotional, scientific facts make your mind up.

To be sure, away from the customary “My wife was out walking with a friend, and their eyes became teary and their throats began to close,” Harris does back his story up by providing as many as 26 citations. Here’s the breakdown:

1 on Delhi’s monkey menace

1 on Delhi’s cattle stealers

1 on Delhi’s stray dogs

2 on smog in China

1 on Kejriwal seeking treatment

2 on biodata of scientists

1 on pollution in Yamuna

12 on air pollution causing respiratory diseases in general

1 on PM2.5 causing respiratory and other diseases in general

1 on superbugs

1 on poor sanitation in India

1 on WHO PM2.5 and PM10 worldwide study (including Delhi)

1 on effect of Delhi’s air pollution on children’s health

There we have it. For an article that talks in excruciating detail of the cataclysmic effect Delhi’s air has had on the health of the author’s child—and the ethical dilemma faced by expats, whether they should risk raising their loved ones in this godforsaken metropolis—for all those morbid adjectives and gut-wrenching, bile-inducing descriptions, Harris quotes but a single scientific study.

 For an article that talks in excruciating detail of the cataclysmic effect Delhi’s air has had on the health of the author’s child, Harris quotes but a single scientific study. 

“Delhi, we discovered,” he writes, “is quietly suffering from a dire paediatric respiratory crisis, with a recent study showing that nearly half of the city’s 4.4 million schoolchildren have irreversible lung damage from the poisonous air.”

Single it may be, a citation is still a citation. Except that here it is in the form of an article written in The Indian Express, and worse, the study it quotes is born out of data that was collected between 2002 and 2005. Yes, more than 10 years ago.

Discounting the fact that Harris insists on calling it “a recent study”; discounting also the fact that The Indian Express blunders with their subheading“Just under half of the 44 lakh schoolchildren studied…” it says, while in reality only 11,628 schoolchildren were studied and the results of the survey extrapolated—the cited report is as comprehensive as one can get.

The study points to the harmful effect Delhi’s air had on the health of 11,628 schoolchildren between 2002-2005: “In lung tests conducted on 5,718 students, 43.5% suffered from “poor or restrictive lungs”; about 15% of the children surveyed complained of frequent eye irritation, 27.4% of frequent headache, 11.2% of nausea, 7.2% of palpitation and 12.9% of fatigue.”

But it is more nuanced than that. The study surveyed children from 36 schools, six of which were situated on Delhi’s main roads that are notoriously choked with traffic all through the day, with one, Lakshmi Public School—that presented one-tenth of the children surveyed—located near one of Delhi’s biggest bottlenecks: Vikas Marg intersection. It is also worth noting that in 2002, neither Delhi’s fleet of 6,000 rickety diesel buses had been phased out despite Supreme Court orders, nor had most of the 25,000 odd auto rickshaws converted to compressed natural gas, or CNG.

In the age group of six to eight—the same as Harris’ son—the prevalence of current asthma in Delhi’s children was found to be marginally higher: 2.5% compared to 2% in the control group. Prevalence of current asthma shot up in children belonging to large-sized families and families with poor socioeconomic background (5.1% for a family size greater than six).

The study found a strong positive association between PM10 and eye irritation, but not with asthma or headache. (PM10, or Particulate Matter of size 10 microns, and PM2.5, or Particulate Matter with size equal to or less than 2.5 microns, are the two major determinants of air pollution. It is now an accepted scientific fact that prevalence of PM2.5—measured in µg/m3—is more dangerous than PM10 as it settles deep inside the lungs).

About 27% of Delhi’s children studied were exposed to cigarette smoke at home (control 28%) and, crucially, the study found that a child’s BMI, or body mass index, has a profound influence on his lung function.

The study concluded:

More respiratory symptoms were found in children from low socioeconomic status (SES), i.e. poor sanitation, low birth weight, vitamin A and zinc deficiency, and poverty.

Underweight children from low SES of this study had greater prevalence of lung function deficits than that of children with normal weight, suggesting a role of nutrition on lung function.

Respiratory and associated symptoms were most prevalent in children from low SES, and least in children from families with high socioeconomic background.

Not exactly the conclusions that should worry Harris who, as a primer to his article, commented, rather gaudily it must be said: “Should rich/foreigners raise children in Delhi? Maybe not.”

Be that as it may, the 10-year-old study is a landmark—it is the most extensive and thorough study ever carried out on the correlation of Delhi’s air pollution with the health of its children. The only other major study of this nature one can think of—and one which is truly recent—is the 2015 study conducted by the HEAL Foundation, a non-government organisation. The researchers surveyed 2,000 schoolchildren nationwide, and their extrapolated conclusions: Nearly half of Delhi’s children suffer severe lung problems due to air pollution, were splashed across all newspapers and news channels on May 5. “Around 35% of school-going children in India suffer from poor lung health with Delhi topping the chart,” said NDTV .

What NDTV and others failed to report was that the HEAL Foundation survey was not only not a peer-reviewed study published in a scientific journal but, more worryingly, it was paid for by the global air-purifier company Blueair, which launched in India two weeks after the study was published.

 The study is not peer-reviewed and was paid for by the global air-purifier company Blueair. 

NDTV, which incidentally is running a Clean Air, My Right campaign, has not brought to the attention of its readers and viewers this startling fact.

Returning to Harris’ magnum opus, the only other study he cites concerning Delhi’s air quality, or lack thereof, is a 2014 World Health Organisation (WHO) study that tabulates the prevalence of Suspended Particulate Matter PM10 and PM2.5 in 1,600 cities across the world during the period 2008-2013.

The WHO report mentions Delhi as having a mean PM10 value of 286 µg/m3 for 2010, and a mean PM2.5 value of 153 µg/m3 for 2013. Delhi’s air came out as one of the most polluted among all the cities surveyed. At the time this study was published, the government-run System of Air Quality Weather Forecasting and Research disputed the WHO findings, stating that PM values changed with seasons and became comparatively better than the values given for Beijing (121 and 56 for PM10 and PM2.5, respectively).

Interestingly, the PM2.5 value for Doha, Qatar, which has the highest GDP per capita among all the nations of the world, is 93 µg/m3 (year 2012). Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE had a PM10 value of 170 µg/m3. It should also be noted that in the 10-year-old study cited by Harris, and discussed in detail above, the 2002-2005 mean PM10 value for Delhi’s traffic intersection points was 250 µg/m3.

The PM10 and PM2.5 values for Delhi on the morning of June 03 are 120 µg/m3 and 71 µg/m3, respectively, less than half of WHO’s figures.

What’s going on? Has Delhi’s air turned healthier than what it was in 2010? Highly doubtful, considering the increase in vehicular traffic, the rampant burning of dry leaves despite high court guidelines, and the unbearable menace of street sweeping in the mornings. The PM2.5 range includes atmospheric, construction, cement, and settling dust, and dust it is that envelops millions of Delhi office goers and schoolchildren in the morning. Ravinder Raj, an 80-year-old man, has filed repeated public interest litigations to get the municipal corporation of Delhi to switch to sweeping the streets at night but to no avail. Just this simple solution, he says, can reduce the instances of respiratory diseases by 90%.

If Delhi is bad, it has company. “Half of the world’s urban population,” says the WHO study, “lives in cities that exceed by 2.5 times or more the recommended levels of fine particulate matter set out by the WHO Air Quality Guidelines and only around 12% of the total urban population lives in cities where the air quality complies with WHO levels.”

 It is astonishing that there exists no recent comprehensive and peer-reviewed scientific study on the effect of Delhi’s air pollution on its inhabitants. 

So, should Harris’ piece be ignored? Hardly. We as a nation collect everything else except data. The last National Family Health Survey (NFHS), the single-most important survey to judge our nation’s health, and one on the back of which hundreds of policies are drafted, the last NFHS was conducted in 2005, 10 years ago. Worsening air pollution is a reality, and what the departing Harris has done is given us a wake-up call. It is astonishing, and frankly unacceptable, that there exists no recent comprehensive and peer-reviewed scientific study on the effect of Delhi’s air pollution on its inhabitants, particularly the most vulnerable group, children.

The environment ministry’s website is silent on this. How can things improve if policy-makers have no up-to-date scientific study to base their decisions on, and are forced to rely on 10-year-old reports? Policy-making is not op-ed writing.

Harris moves to Washington this week along with his family, and if he believes the WHO findings his next important posting best not be in the world’s richest country, Qatar. But his last dispatch from Delhi might just be his most important, its PM2.5 value notwithstanding.

This piece was first published in Newslaundry. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

home our picks popular latest obsessions search