Air Pollution
A low-cost air quality monitor is letting people across the country know just how polluted their air really is.

The neighbourhood of Minjur, with a population of about 25,000 people, lies in the northern periphery of the city of Chennai. Like any other suburb, most of Minjur’s business establishments, hospitals, schools and colleges, marriage halls and other community establishments are located on its arterial road, the State Highway 56.

Unlike most other neighbourhoods though, thousands of container trucks carrying cargo to and from the city’s major ports, that are located about 12-kilometres away, ply right across Minjur. This necessitates its residents to navigate their lives around these road trains and the toxic fumes they emit.

The state and central government’s pollution control boards do not monitor the air quality here. Until recently, the people of Minjur had no way of knowing how bad the pollution really was in their region. Not anymore though; they now know in real time how bad their air quality is. They can show Air Quality Index (AQI) numbers that support their pleas for rerouting the port traffic around their little suburb, thus saving Minjur’s denizens, especially its children, from the disastrous health consequences of the air pollution that they are subject to everyday.

“Even during peak hours, it was like someone had bombed the area – there was so much thick, black smoke everywhere,” says Shweta Narayan of the Health Energy Initiative (HEI), who setup Atmos, a low-cost Air Quality Monitor (AQM) in Minjur.

She adds, “Their fight on air pollution is one big demand, basically change the route of the trucks. Since no one is monitoring air quality, there is no recognition of the problem of air pollution here. We now have data that indicates what the quality of air is in the area and that is helping them tremendously.”

Gasping for breath

“It is said that breathing in Delhi on many days is equivalent to smoking 50 cigarettes and cities like Chennai are unfortunately not far behind,” says Shweta. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), nearly 20 million people suffer due to the adverse effects of air pollution and it is the cause of death for nearly 1.5 million people in India.

Globally, air pollution is responsible for about 3 million premature deaths, which is roughly the same toll as that of malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS combined. The major sources of air pollution are also important drivers of climate change, which threatens public health around the world. Despite these well-documented consequences, 92% of the world’s population lives in places where air quality levels exceed the WHO’s guidelines.

Meanwhile, air quality monitoring is inadequate in some of the most polluted large urban areas. As a result, air pollution is neither recognized nor addressed as the public health crisis it is. While AQI monitoring by government establishments offer figures only for a few cities in India, that too only for a few regions within cities, most Indians don’t know how polluted their air really is. It is this vacuum of information that low-cost air quality monitors fill.

Starting towards a solution

“I’ve been in Mumbai for about three decades and I have witnessed the pollution situation deteriorating drastically here,” says Ronak Sutaria of Urban Sciences, the company which has designed and retails Atmos, the most popular among low-cost AQMs in India. “My whole idea was to equip citizens with data and information that they can use to deal with issues better. I had seen such AQMs in California and decided to make something similar in India, where people need it the most.”

Atmos is primarily a monitor of Particulate Matter (PM) in the air that is smaller than 10 microns and 2.5 microns. These tiny PMs are the source of a multitude of health ailments and once deposited in a person’s lungs can be impossible to get rid of.  While the device retails for about INR 15,000 (USD 230), other devices that perform similar functions costs more than USD 20,000. The devices are scientifically calibrated and transmits the AQI data that it measures in real-time, which can be viewed immediately on their website.

Currently, over 100 Atmos units have been deployed in 15 cities. Another 200 units are under deployment in 15 more cities across the country. To get an accurate understanding of AQI in India, Sutaria hopes to install the device in over 500 urban agglomerations across the country. “If we’re able to do this, for the first time, everyone will know what the AQI is, not just in big cities but across the country,” says Sutaria.

The hope is to provide Indians hard evidence about how polluted the air they breathe is, which they can use to take proactive action. As Narayan says, “To show the authorities what the AQI is, validates the claims of affected people.” She adds, “You have to understand people who live in polluted areas are often the marginalised, so to be able to do something like this is highly empowering for them.”

Sibi Arasu is an independent journalist based in Chennai. He tweets @sibi123. Real-time air pollution data from across the country can be viewed here.