Showing posts with label Air pollution. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Air pollution. Show all posts

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Diwali Ban — Unwarranted Judicial Activism?

The Hindus of Delhi will not celebrate Diwali this year, at least not with the usual fervour associated with the festival of lights and crackers, thanks to an ill-conceived judgement by the Supreme Court. 

The ban was ordered on November 11, 2016 in response to a petition filed by three children stating that bursting of crackers on a single night – that is on the Diwali night – increased the suspended particulate matter in the air threefold and that “residents and children [were] feeling breathless and vulnerable to asthmatic attacks” in the air following the bursting of crackers on Diwali. Obviously agreeing with the petitioners, the Supreme Court “observed that the direct and immediate cause of the spike in air pollution during this time is because of burning ofcrackers for Deepavali.

In trying to understand the Hon’ble Court’s judgement it is necessary to understand

1.  Whether there is a causal relationship between bursting of crackers on a single night – that is on the Diwali night – and increase in particulate matter in the air

2. Whether there is a causal relationship between increase in particulate matter in the air and respiratory diseases as is being made out to be

In order to answer our first question, let us turn to Inside Story -China's pollution dilemma originally published on the Al Jazeera website on December 23, 2015. It features a panel discussion on the problem of air pollution in China. A report by Adrian Brown preceded the panel discussion moderated by Kamahl Santamaria. The panelists were Einar Tangen, (Political and economic affairs analyst advising the Chinese government), Steve Tsang (Senior fellow at the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, UK) and Tamara Savelyeva (Professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education). 

Here is the gist of the panel discussion:

Air pollution contributes to 17% of all deaths in China; 90% of cities failed to meet national air quality standards. Air pollution accounted for 1.6 million deaths in a single year. This means 4400 people die every day. The levels of air pollution are seven times the maximum exposure recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The government is forced to close schools, colleges and factories in order to protect people from pollution on the days on which there is a spike in the particulate matter in the air. 

In the words of Einar Tangen, “China polluted its way to success!” The major contributing factors of the air pollution were the coal and steel industries. Attempts to transit from coal as the energy producer have been on but it is a difficult trade-off in view of the highly labour-intensive nature of the industry. The economic costs of air pollution are already telling on the economy. The nation can be said to have reached its threshold limit.

[By the by the YouTube video is worth watching to understand how panel discussions are conducted on international television. There is no screaming; no talking over each other and the presenter let everyone talk!]

By no stretch of imagination could one ascribe the problem of air pollution in China to firecrackers or Diwali. The problem therefore should lie elsewhere. Here is a snapshot of a news report published in 2015 in Mail Today, according to which there are 110,000 smoke emitting cottage industries in Delhi. 

What causes pollution then? An IIT study report of 2013-14 published in Bloomberg identified industry, vehicular pollution, power plants and cottage industries as the main pollutants.

Now to the second question: several medical experts have appeared in television debates (as they did last year too), to testify that increased air pollution due to bursting of crackers on the one night of Diwali indeed causes respiratory diseases. As experts they are entitled to their individual opinions on the subject. As experts in a scientific discipline, they would also agree that voicing opinions in public fora without adequate studies is not exactly a scientific way of voicing opinions. For here is an excerpt from a scientific study on the subject which appeared in Lung Indiaa specialist magazine on the subject of lung diseases (with a formidable line-up of editors) intended not for laymen but for medical specialists in the subject:

An extensive Medline search revealed that a strong evidence of the impact of fireworks on respiratory health is lacking in susceptible as well as healthy individuals with no formal studies on COPD or asthma, other than a few case reports in the latter 

Here are a few noteworthy excerpts from the article which definitely warrant serious scrutiny, especially in view of, not conclusive proof but scientificspeculation” about a few hours on one night of fireworks causing serious health problems:

Fireworks and asthma Few investigators have identified the association between asthma and exposure to fireworks.

Fireworks and COPD We could not find any publications identifying an association between COPD and firework exposure.

An association between repeated exposure to firework emissions and respiratory symptoms has not been definitely identified.

One can argue that typical exposure to such pollutants is limited, as assessed by Singh et al., ranging from a few hours to a few days, depending on the duration of the firework festival, thus probably only causing minimal exposure. Also, fireworks are often let off following sunset when most people would go indoors to sleep after seeing the show, hence limiting exposure time to the ambient air pollutants.

There is limited literature describing the physical characteristics of firework particles themselves including size distribution, number concentrations, modal characteristics as well as particle density

Following a thorough review of the literature available, further studies are necessary to consolidate current evidence and speculation. (Emphasis added.)

Is everyone, the “children”, the activists and the Supreme Court oblivious of the elephant in the room and barking the wrong tree?

Or is there any other ulterior motive for the “activists” which the Hon’ble Supreme Court, to give it the benefit of doubt, did not sense?