Lockdown Impacts: As Ambient Air Improved, Did a Spike in Indoor Pollution Go Unnoticed?

Over the past months, one of the most unprecedented global tragedies has ravaged nations, demonstrating a dystopian future to people. As lockdowns were announced to contain the spread of Covid-19, and businesses and industries were halted for months, a steep drop in global air pollution – an unanticipated co-benefit – brought temporary optimism.

In India too, the nationwide lockdown since late March brought economic activities to a standstill, wreaking havoc on the lives and livelihoods of thousands of citizens. But, similar to the global pattern, India recorded a significant drop in pollution levels as well – 43% drop in PM2.5 (breathable particulate matter of 2.5 microns or less), 31% in PM 10, 10% in carbon monoxide (CO), and 18% in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels have been recorded between March 16 and April 14 this year, as against the previous years.

Outdoor v/s indoor pollution

This may sound heartening, considering that global research is already linking the impacts of Covid-19 to air pollution. However, ground realities may not be as simple. In truth, improvement in the ambient (outdoor) air quality is just one side of the story. On the other hand, an increase in the number of people staying at home, both in urban and rural India, has led to a steep rise in, and exposure to, indoor air pollution across households.

Our ongoing research juxtaposing latest population projections against household access of cooking fuels, their use of primary and secondary fuels (for example, gas for cooking main meals and firewood for making rotis or boiling bath water), the per meal consumption and emissions rates of various fuels, has pointed to an almost 150 tons/day increase in the total household PM2.5 emissions in India, from 8600 tons to 8750 tons per day during the lockdown.

Indoor air pollution, while not as much in the public eye as ambient air, is a silent killer, especially among the urban poor and the rural population. Every year household air pollution -– primarily caused by burning of cooking fuels – is responsible for 0.5 million premature deaths. Its level is also 3-20 times higher than outdoor pollution, with its average daily concentration in just one household being anywhere between 173 and 600 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3).

Cooking Fuels are Primary Contributors

A November 2019 study by the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO)showed that87% of urban and 48% of rural households (surveyed between July and December 2018) used Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) for cooking; that means, 13% and 52% respectively, used polluting fuels.

An earlier report by the organization also indicated that out of the total LPG users (between July 2011 and June 2012), 42% urban and 92% rural continued using polluting fuels as secondary fuel. Further, the data suggested that on an average, India’s population consumes 3% of its daily meals outdoor. This means, they either eat in the areas outside their homes, or purchase from restaurants, receive from employers, avail from government or non-profits and charitable organizations (example,mid-day meals for students). Today, in the ‘new normal’, most of these outdoor consumption activities have shifted indoors, adding a projected 2.5 to 3% and 2% increase in PM2.5 emissions, from urban and rural households, respectively.

States like Kerala, Maharashtra, West Bengaland Jharkhand are emerging as the biggest indoor emitters with 20, 15, 14 and 12 tons/day PM 2.5 emissions, respectively, according to our on-ground research. Other contributors include Union Territories like Andaman and Nicobar, Chandigarh, Dadra and Nagar-Haveli, and Daman and Diu.

High Exposure Time

With people confined to their homes during the lockdown, the exposure-time to polluting household air also increased. Working individuals and school children, who form 50% of India’s population, and are typically considered low-exposure groups as they stayed away from home during peak cooking hours, were also exposed to household pollution during the lockdown. An average person would usually spend about 20% – approximately five hours – of their day outside the house, where air pollution was 3-20 times lesser than that found indoors.These dynamics changed markedly in the past months.

Plus, the shifting of outdoor meal consumption to indoors, meant that the emissions stayed indoors and posed a health risk for all the family members including the elderly, children and the already affected women folks.

Judicious data analysis

Today, as we wait for the lockdown to be lifted completely and for the economy to revive, cities like Delhi and Mumbai have already begun observing a spike in air pollution. To ensure that we don’t repeat past mistakes, and instead initiate a clean economic revival, it is time for us to judiciously categorize the various components of air pollution, understand the impact of the lockdown on them and develop strategies to systematically reduce them. Studies mapping the trajectory of Covid-19 suggest that the virus will continue to plague humanity for at least a year, while other studies warn of deadlier pandemics, if we don’t make environmentally sound decisions. Hence, data and observations from before, during and after the lockdown is of prime importance. We must collate data diligently as it can help identify finer distinctions of air pollution and sources,to devise better solutions for a comprehensive, long-term mitigation strategies. Our focus should also be on making clean cooking fuel available to all levels of rural and urban population. Recently, schemes like the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana have supported the gradual shift to LPG, reducing the dependence on fuelwood and coal-burning effectively. Maintenance and recharge facilities should also be made accessible and easy-to-follow. Regular sensitization drives explaining the health implications of dirty cooking fuels can further help people transition to clean fuel.

Ajay Singh Nagpure is Head, Air Pollution, World Resources Institute India Ross Center for Sustainable Cities. Nitya Kaushik is media lead, WRI India.