Even as the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) 2013 report warns us that the air we breathe is contaminated with cancer-causing particles, air pollution in Mumbai continues to rise at an alarming rate. It is most visible in winter when the coastal city is enveloped by thick smog — the most telling sign of progressive deterioration, now even backed by the IARC, which finds Mumbai’s air worse than Beijing’s. The BMC’s 2012 report was a clear indication of how dangerously toxic the air had become. Besides, issuing a warning that Mumbai’s air, water and noise pollution levels were at an all-time high, the report stated that between 2010 and 2012, carbon monoxide had increased by 63 per cent, while suspended particulate matter (SPM) shot up by 16 per cent. Other toxic substances like nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide rose by of 8.94 per cent and 7 per cent, respectively.
The three main causes of air pollution in Mumbai and adjoining areas are vehicular pollution, garbage burning by the BMC and emission from industrial plants in the eastern suburbs and New Bombay and incessant construction activities.
Vehicular pollution can be attributed to a stupendous increase in cars and other vehicles on Mumbai’s roads. In a span of six years (from 2006-07 to 2012-13), 7 lakh cars were registered with regional transportation offices. For a city, woefully lacking in infrastructure, this was a tremendous burden.
New Bombay, home to the largest chemical industry zone in Asia, exposes its residents to high level of toxic and carcinogenic substances released by the chemical plants. Not so long ago, a memorandum to the National Human Rights Commission had alleged that several chemical factories release toxic gases in the cover of darkness.
In Chembur, Mumbai’s eastern suburb, residents are complaining of a host of respiratory diseases including breathlessness, asthma, allegedly because of the chemical-laden air they breathe. The culprit, apparently, is a chemical storage facility in the neighbourhood. Chembur’s residents are also forced to breathe foul air when garbage is burnt at night in the 100 hectare municipal garbage dump north of the Chembur-Vashi road. The website of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research mentions the Environmental Health Rights Organisation of India (EHROI) claims that ‘the level of particulate matter around the dump is about 2000 microgrammes per cubic metre — way beyond the upper limit of 150 set by WHO’.
It is said that outdoor air pollution is responsible for more than two-and-a-half million deaths worldwide each year. The worst affected are the young and the elderly as they seem to be more vulnerable to respiratory and heart diseases. Mumbai too has seen an alarming increase in respiratory disorders. City doctors say that one in 10 people has asthma, and those between six and 12 years of age are suffering the most. Deaths due to respiratory diseases too have shot up in the recent years in Mumbai, as per the civic body’s records.
The only silver lining in all of this is that Mumbai will soon get air monitoring stations, which will forecast the quality of air 24-72 hours in advance. But, will such information lead to a concerted effort to clean up the environment?