An IIT-Madras study suggests that roads be swept and watered to bring down amount of dust

Zipping across the city on his two-wheeler and meeting clients is part of his job. But in the process, 27-year-old D.Bharathi, a marketing executive, says he feels suffocated while waiting at traffic intersections. “A few of my colleagues use handkerchiefs and the overcautious even use masks. At signals, especially during rush hour, it is like getting trapped inside a gas chamber, the fumes give a headache, nausea... I wouldn't want to take in such polluted air. But what is the alternative? ,” he asks.

Though two-wheeler riders and pedestrians are exposed to dust, most pay scant attention to it. From November to February, the city experiences inversion during nights and humidity increases leading to the dust remaining in the ambient air.

A study conducted in 2007-08 by IIT-Madras says that dust on paved roads has the bigger share among particulate matter when compared to that of vehicular emission. It suggested that roads be swept and watered to bring down the amount of road dust.

The Corporation has recently placed orders to procure mechanical sweepers. Residents, however, are sceptical as the equipment is only to be used on major roads.

Jayashree Sridharan, a resident of Kodambakkam, says that mechanical sweepers would not be used in residential areas. “Though we live on a major road, it is not swept. Corporation staff only clear garbage. Because of this, there is a fine layer of dust on glass surfaces if they are not wiped daily. I pay my servant an additional Rs.250 every month to wipe around the house.”

This dust has had a visible impact on the health of residents. R. Balachandran, a senior citizen in Anna Nagar West, says that elderly persons are most affected. “A new one-way system has been introduced here causing so much dust. That is in addition to the vehicular emission. When traffic changes are made, the authorities concerned must check the pollution levels. Nobody consults residents before such changes. I am a heart patient and need to go on regular walks. It has become impossible to walk as I cannot inhale on the roads and in the evenings the glare of the headlights affects my vision.”

Officials of the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board, which measures air pollution levels in five locations manually, say that the number of monitoring stations would be increased.

“We are procuring mobile monitoring stations too. The IIT-M study has also suggested that old vehicles be phased out, on which the State government has not taken a decision yet. Various factors, including traffic congestion, Metro Rail work, low vehicular travelling velocity and the narrow roads have caused an increase in dust levels. We are working on modalities to improve urban air quality,” says TNPCB Member Secretary K. Karthikeyan.

Rajesh Rangarajan, project lead, India Pollution Map, CDF – IFMR, said that now that the TNPCB has a sense of which sectors contribute most to air pollution, it must strengthen monitoring infrastructure in each of these areas. “It should also move beyond conventional monitoring, improve them and have equipment in the suburbs that are growing,” he said.

The government tertiary care hospitals in the city have registered a significant increase in the number of patients reporting with allergic rhinitis, bronchial asthma, upper and lower respiratory infections and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Thoracic and ENT experts say these conditions are a direct result of increased air pollution.

At the Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital, in the past year, there has been a 10 per cent increase in the number of persons who have sought treatment for these problems, says D. Ranganathan, professor of Chest Medicine. “Earlier there was a season for allergies and asthma, which began around Deepavali and ended in March. But now we receive patients through the year,” he adds.

The Government Stanley Hospital's ENT Department receives approximately 30 to 40 new patients with allergic rhinitis daily. “We have seen a five per cent increase in the number of patients reporting with allergic reactions,” says department head T. Balasubramanian. “Diesel fumes increases particulate matter in the air. It has been documented that sneezing and bronchial asthma complaints are due to exposure to diesel fumes,” he adds.

Anumita Roychowdhury, researcher at the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) says that most Indian cities, including Chennai, utterly fail to meet the National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

“Repeated studies have shown that extremely small-sized particulate matter content is generally very high in the air we breathe,” she says. Considering that such particulate matter or what is commonly called road dust accounts for 70 per cent of the air pollution load, it is important to rework strategies. Long-term exposure to dust is bound to have an adverse impact on the health.

Reflecting on Delhi's own experience in handling chronic air pollution, she says that the introduction of compressed natural gas made a huge difference. “Chennai should try its own version of technological interventions that could improve air quality. For example, the city must try and leapfrog to Euro IV vehicle emission standards, from the current Bharat IV norms, as soon as possible,” she says.

Additional Commissioner of Police (Traffic) Sanjay Arora also cites the sheer number of vehicles as a major problem. “The level of congestion on arterial roads is so much that during rush hour, each vehicle user, on an average, takes 2-3 signal cycles to cross a junction. Better traffic regulation at junctions is possible through signal optimisation, which would also reduce emissions due to vehicle idling. But we need signal systems that can dynamically adjust timings based on vehicle volumes through the day.” He admits that emission norms are not enforced too strictly.

Though repeated studies have shown that vehicular emission is responsible for over 50 per cent of the city's air pollution load, experts say that the emission control mechanism of all agencies concerned — Transport Department, TNPCB and the traffic police — have been systematically dismantled. While the city had about 130 emission testing centres in 1997 when pollution control levels were introduced, it had come down to around 30 by 2010.

(With inputs from Deepa H Ramakrishnan, Ajai Sreevatsan and R. Sujatha)

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