New Delhi: Crowned recently as the world’s most polluted city, India’s capital does not have a system in place to issue health advisories when particulate matter (PM) in the atmosphere reaches levels that are several times higher than the prescribed safe limit.

The absence of such warning systems is true of other Indian cities, too.

A Yale University study has found the national capital the world’s most polluted city, beating even Beijing, where pollution alerts prompt immediate government intervention.

A Delhi government official, however, said a committee had been set up more than a year ago to look into the matter of issuing health advisories in case of high pollution levels.

The committee, which has members from the Delhi Pollution Control Committee, the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, the India Meteorological Department and some not-for-profit organizations, is on the verge of finalizing its report.

“We just have to do a last meeting. We are hoping to bring it out in the next three-four months. The decision to set up this committee was taken after the smog of November 2012," said the Delhi government official who requested anonymity.

Cities in countries such as China and the US issue health advisories whenever pollution indicators like PM levels go beyond the safe limit prescribed by the World Health Organization (WHO).

“The air quality (in Delhi) is unhealthy for sensitive group, which includes infants and people suffering from respiratory problems like asthma and bronchitis, while healthy people and children who are active outside, are also at a health risk," said G. Beig, programme director, System of Air Quality Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), at Pune-based Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, ministry of earth sciences.

“Such health warnings need to be picked up by executive authorities and taken forward for the good of people," said Beig.

According to SAFAR, PM 2.5 emissions—particles that are smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter and can lodge deep in human lungs as well as other organs and can cause diseases—have gone up by 10-20% from 2010-14.

In a 60x60km radius in Delhi, emissions of PM 2.5 in 2010 were 94.3 microgram per cubic metre (m/cum) per year, but in 2014, it is estimated to be 107.5 m/cum per year.

The safe limit, as per WHO guidelines for PM 2.5 emissions, is 60 m/cum.

In the last four years in Delhi, the average PM 2.5 emissions in the November-January period have averaged 150-270 m/cum, while during the rainy season, the air quality is cleanest at 40-80 m/cum.

Beig said some of the chief culprits were vehicular pollution, thermal power plants, and dust blown by vehicles moving on unpaved roads.

Outdoor air pollution claimed 627,000 lives in India in 2010, according to India-specific findings of the Global Burden of Disease study that placed pollution among the top 10 global health risks, ranking it alongside high blood pressure, tobacco consumption and alcoholism.

“From the health point of view, it is worrying that mixed ambient air quality is becoming bad. The air that you are breathing continuously for 24 hours, if it’s poor, it’s hazardous," said Beig.

An environment ministry official said that the levels were much worse in winter, between 200 m/cum and 300 m/cum. “Even in summers it is between 100-125 m/cum, which is above the normal level," the official added.

Beig said that it is now an acknowledged fact that fog is not purely a meteorological phenomenon—it is also about air quality.

“Weather-related triggering of extreme pollution events is one of the symptoms of a short-term climate change, which is a natural phenomenon. But for mitigation of air pollution, emissions near the surface have to be reduced."

“...There is no denying that Delhi’s air quality is extremely poor and is hazardous to health. The pollution is especially compounded in winter. What needs to be highlighted is that the frequency of extreme pollution events is increasing in Delhi, and air pollution events are also increasing in duration," he said.

However, the environment ministry official said that issuing health advisories when pollution levels go up was not a good idea. “These advisories will only create panic and sensitization will not be possible. We should avoid these," said the official who requested anonymity.

“Whether to issue an advisory is a decision the health ministry has to take. This is a policy matter, but, as a doctor, I do think it is relevant to equip the public with the information, which if shared intelligently does not create panic," said A.K. Aggarwal, a professor at Maulana Azad Medical College in New Delhi, who chairs the committee set up by the Delhi government.

Vidya Krishnan contributed to this story.

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