NEW DELHI // The terrible air quality in the Indian capital has just become even worse due to construction work for the Commonwealth Games, figures from the Central Pollution Control Board show. The board's member-secretary, SD Makhijani, said massive building work for October's Games and the subsequent traffic congestion are to blame for a large increase in nitrogen oxides and particulate matter in the air in New Delhi.
"At this stage the air quality is not so good," Mr Makhijani said. "There are so many construction projects going on and so much congestion." There is some positive news, however. While nitrogen oxides and particulate matter are getting worse, Delhi's painful decision to switch all commercial vehicles onto natural gas fuel from diesel has kept the most toxic sulphur dioxides and carbon monoxides within acceptable limits.
"These are not a problem. Sulphur dioxides especially are well within standards," Mr Makhijani said. With 1,000 extra cars hitting the roads each working day, one third of them diesel, nitrogen oxides are soaring - as is particulate matter, or fine ingestible dust, according to the pollution board. Respirable suspended particulate matter (RSPM) is a major health hazard, especially for children, and doctors are now warning that poor air quality could compromise the performance of contenders at the Commonwealth Games in October.
"It is definitely going to affect their performance, because pollution has a bad effect on all parameters for vital capacity," said Dr AK Sood at Rockland Hospital in the city. "Respiratory capacity for any athlete is extremely important, so it is bound to affect them." RSPM levels have always been higher in Delhi than other Commonwealth countries, but they remained within World Bank limits until last autumn. In October, the levels suddenly tripled, and they have yet to drop.
The same is true for nitrogen oxides; levels climbed above safe limits in October, and they remain high. Mr Makhijani said a mammoth US$17.5 billion (Dh64.3bn) construction programme of flyovers, new Metro lines, stadiums and bus lanes in preparation for the Games has thrown clouds of dust up into the air while causing congestion that prevents exhaust from dispersing. Winter fog then settled and trapped the foul air, which is why levels of pollution have yet to drop, he said.
As the weather warms up and the Commonwealth Games construction ends, Mr Makhijani hopes that levels will fall. "We hope that when the construction is completed, air quality will return back to 2008 levels," he said. In 2008 the pollution board recorded a better year as it reaped the benefits of a difficult decision to switch all commercial vehicles to natural gas. The results were staggering. Within 12 months, sulphur dioxide levels dropped by three-quarters, and carbon monoxide levels plunged.
Delhi has won international acclaim for the move, which was prompted by a 2005 health study revealing that foul air had impaired lung function in nearly half of all Delhi children. Delhi youngsters were also twice as likely as children in other Indian cities to suffer from respiratory disease, and they had three times the alveolar macrophages, or narrowing of the air passages - something that is directly linked to RSPM.
Children are especially vulnerable to poor air quality because their immune systems are not fully developed and they tend to spend more time than adults outdoors. They also breathe more deeply relative to body mass. Although no comparable study has been done since 2005, Dr Sood at Rocklands Hospital said anecdotal evidence suggested that respiratory disease among children had started to improve, until the past few months.
Some are calling for an immediate increase in air quality standards as well as a reduction in the number of cars on the road. "We have crossed the point this year where we can say Delhi is clean," said Anumita Roychoudhary, from the Centre of Science and Environment. But the board is going to wait to see if levels drop towards the end of the year. If they do not, further action will be taken, said Mr Makhijani, who cited public transit as a core strategy to improve the city's air quality.
"We need to ensure the smooth flow of traffic and decrease the number of vehicles, which is only possible if people switch to public transport," he said. Delhi has invested heavily in public transit, but it is also expanding and improving the city's network of ring roads. Mr Makhijani said if commuters driving into Delhi from outside the city refuse to save an hour by leaving the car at home, the pollution control board will tax them.