Gas Chamber: 'Delhi gave me eye damage'

For 33-year-old journalist Shashank, shifting to Delhi 12 years ago was a good career move. The dust that hangs over the Capital’s roads, however, gave this young man permanent eye damage. He’s had to almost quit biking, one of his loves. His story:

It has been 12 years since I shifted to the national capital. Having completed my graduation from Kolkata, I shifted base to Delhi in July 2006. And the city became my home. Sadly, however, the city that gave me a new life and a new perspective also took away part of the vision in my left eye. But then it’s not the city which is to be blamed but its ever-increasing, toxin-rich pollution that left its mark on me in the shape of a permanent scar on the cornea of my left eye. The problem was first detected two years back when both my eyes began to remain watery and red. I was advised some eye-drops but to no relief. My vision was blurred and I was unable to open my eye in bright light. An advanced scan led to the discovery of two damaged layers in my left eye. Now I permanently wear glasses and have a -2.7 correction in my left eye. It’s impossible to step outside without sunglasses as my eye is now too sensitive for bright sunlight. How this problem started is the real shocker. It’s right in front of us but nobody never taken it seriously. If you drive in Delhi, you are well aware of the dust or sand that is encountered on the road, especially Ring Road. These dust particles are the main components of Particulate Matter (PM10) in the immediate environment. I’m an avid biker, and I have always made sure of using a good quality helmet and other protective gear. The dust was getting through all the time, even though I had started splashing water in my eyes as a rule after every ride. Rubbing my eyes, a spontaneous reaction,  made the situation worse. Over a period of time, I developed a permanent scar in one eye, and there it will remain for life. I have to be a part of this city — my family, friends and career are here. So I wear glasses all the time and have cut down on biking. Delhi’s pollution is silently killing us all every day and it’s high time we sit up, take note and act.

More from the Gas Chamber

Mayur Sharma saw it coming

‘Delhi’s air is killing us all’

—With Lokmarg  ]]>


By S.N. Tripathi An apple a day keeps the doctor away is passe. Yet, it applies so well to the health of our environment, especially the atmosphere. We keep our body healthy so that it can efficiently fight diseases. A weak body will need heavy medication to fight a disease and, in the process, may develop side-effects. This general principle applies to the atmosphere too. Relatively clean air with the concentration of ambient pollutants under control is in a better position to deal with occasional large emissions. Large forest fires, volcanic eruptions and dust-storms are unexpected incidents that may momentarily cause air pollution levels to spike above permissible levels. After such events, a healthy environment would be easily able to return to a cleaner state. In Delhi, however, after over 10 days of “severe”-level air quality, it improved to a “very poor” level during the December scare. This is a sign of an unhealthy environment that takes time to recover to its original state, though even that state may not be very healthy at all. This is a cause of great concern and needs immediate public and policy attention. The Indo-Gangetic Plains (IGP) have recorded unprecedented levels of air pollution exceeding all permissible limits almost all year long. The situation is such that, just like an unhealthy body, its immune system fails to recuperate from external periodic events such as crop burning in Punjab and Haryana, excessive vehicular pollution, or construction dust. This is because even in the normal state, year round, the pollution caused by poorly-regulated industries as well as coal-fired power plants with obsolete emission control norms exceeds the limits that the environment can handle. The lack of a fine self-correcting balance mechanism creates a fragile situation ready to explode. Sadly, while Delhi has the “privilege” of great media attention, other cities across the plains are worse off. Lucknow has been recorded as the most polluted city in India, while PM2.5 values of Kanpur, Moradabad and even Ghaziabad are not far behind. There is, in fact, evidence that most Indian cities with populations of over 100,000 have pollution levels well exceeding WHO limits. One way to ascertain atmospheric pollution levels is to measure the rate at which dust particles block sunlight. Research based on the ISRO network shows that since 1995, pollution in the atmosphere has been increasing across India, with a much steeper rise in the IGP. What are the major reasons behind this and what could be the possible solution to this gigantic problem, which is now the largest killer globally as estimated by the Lancet Commission? It is worth remembering that even with all sincere efforts, it will take years, if not decades, to secure clean and breathable air in our cities. Pollution in water bodies such as a river is much better understood compared to atmospheric pollution. The overall size of a water body is only a fraction of the area of the land. For example, the Ganga and the Yamuna put together will only be a fraction of the area of the IGP. Even with a simpler system with far greater understanding we are struggling to keep our rivers clean. The atmosphere has active and complex interactions between gases, particulate and liquid droplets, especially during monsoon and winter-time fog. The problem is further compounded by transformation of gases into particulate matter, giving rise to secondary formations. Data shows that during winter, up to 50-60 per cent of total PM2.5 is secondary in nature (forming in the atmosphere rather than released at source) because of conversion of gases such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, volatile organic carbon (VOCs) and poly aromatic hydrocarbon (PAHs) into particles. It is a highly challenging task to trace the sources of these gases. Existing sampling methods are not capable of distinguishing between primary and secondary sources. Hence, the present source-apportionment studies that employ these techniques fail to provide the comprehensive understanding that is required to solve this problem. The reported sources are based on particles collected on filters followed by their chemical speciation. Unfortunately, these analyses can only achieve speciation at most by 50 per cent (lack of mass closure), limiting our ability to properly understand the sources. This is also precisely the reason that the problem of air pollution needs to be looked at a regional scale as gases emitted elsewhere can contribute to PM at a different place, thus limiting the overall efficacy of source mitigation efforts solely driven by local considerations. The regional nature of the problem requires inter-state cooperation. This can be achieved by creating a single empowered agency with scientific, technological and legal arms. There is a valley-like effect in the IGP — the tall Himalayas in the north not allowing air masses to rise and disperse, as is the case in other parts of the country. Inversion conditions during winter further reduce the dispersion capacity of the lower part of the atmosphere, leading to accumulation near the surface. Such weather conditions cannot be avoided. One way to deal with these is to adopt stricter emission laws for the IGP, with rigorous enforcement backed up by severe penalties. The monitoring networks can be scaled up using low-cost, automated sensors that have been giving promising results. Experience of other countries can be used to combat this problem. (S.N. Tripathi, a professor at IIT-Kanpur, has been closely studying air quality, climate and health over the years. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at (IANS)]]>