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New WHO standards for air quality: Delhi needs to accelerate action, say experts

The Indian Express logo The Indian Express 23-09-2021 Abhinaya Harigovind
a man riding a skateboard up the side of a road © Provided by The Indian Express

The World Health Organisation (WHO) released its revised air quality guidelines on Wednesday, lowering the the recommended levels of pollutants from the existing guidelines that were framed in 2005. What do these revised guidelines mean for Delhi?

Experts say that the revised guidelines emphasize the need to accelerate action to deal with pollutants considering that Delhi’s air pollution levels are far from the National Air Quality Standards.

“In 2020, annual average PM2.5 levels for Delhi was roughly 98. We are way off the health-based target that WHO is talking about. If we have to make public health central to air pollution mitigation, we need aggressive strategies to reduce emissions at source,” said Anumita Roy Chowdhury, Executive Director for Research and Advocacy at the Centre for Science and Environment.

For PM2.5, the 24-hour average amount has been reduced from 25 micrograms per cubic metre to 15 micrograms per cubic metre. The amount for nitrogen dioxide has been reduced from 40 micrograms per cubic metre as an annual average to 10 micrograms per cubic metre. In India, the PM2.5 guideline for a 24-hour average is 40 micrograms per cubic metre, and 60 micrograms per cubic metre as an annual average. Similarly, for nitrogen dioxide, the Central Pollution Control Board’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards set 40 micrograms per cubic metre as an annual average and 80 micrograms per cubic metre as a 24-hour average.

The guidelines set thresholds for air pollutants depending on their impact on health. The WHO said in a statement on Wednesday that almost all air quality guideline levels have been adjusted downwards, and warned that exceeding the new levels is associated with significant risks to health.

“While we need to strengthen local action, we also need to scale that up across the region. Delhi has special challenges of location and climatic conditions – we’re landlocked, there’s winter inversion because of the cold. We have so much more to do. We are not even meeting our own National Air Quality Standard, which is an intermediate standard - a step towards the WHO guidelines. Stringent action will have to be taken on waste management, transport vehicles to cut down local sources of pollution,” Roy Chowdhury said.

Sagnik Dey, Associate Professor, Centre for Atmospheric Sciences, IIT Delhi, said, “We are far away even from our own standards. Action will have to be accelerated to reduce air pollution because most north Indian States are way above the national standards. The first step is to achieve the interim target set by the National Clean Air Programme, which is a 20% to 30% decrease in pollutants, and then try to achieve the national standard, which is at 40 for PM2.5,” he said.

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