PATNA: Several areas in Bihar had air quality worse than the national capital region (NCR), known for its toxic air, showed the Central Pollution Control Board’s air quality index on Tuesday. Air quality in many places in Bihar including the capital city of Patna was in the “severe” category as compared to “very poor” in Delhi-NCR.

According to CPCB’s national bulletin issued at 4 pm, 10 cities from Bihar figured in the top 10 most polluted cities across the country. Begusarai recorded the worst air quality in the country where AQI stood at 473 followed by Bhagalpur 452, Siwan 440, Darbhanga 431, and Patna 408. Air quality in several cities inched closer to 400-mark as AQI at Saharsa stood at 397, Rajgir 396, Arrah 395, and Purnia 382.

The CPCB classifies an AQI, which is a 24-hour average of air quality, of zero to 50 as ‘good’, 51-100 as ‘satisfactory’, 101-200 as ‘moderate’, 201-300 as ‘poor’, 301-400 as ‘very poor’ and above 401 as ‘severe’.

As per the data available, the state recorded ‘severe’ AQI for 19 days between December 1 and December 20 (except on December 6) as AQI oscillated between 404 and 474 at these three cities. Begusarai recorded the worst AQI in the country for 11 days this month so far.

Why AQI in Bihar is alarming?

Pollution experts attributed geographical, meteorological, and anthropological reasons for the rise in air pollution in the state.

Bihar State Pollution Control Board’s (BSPCB) chairman Ashok Kumar Ghosh said, “Bihar’s Indo-Gangetic geographical position is primarily responsible for the increase in AQI during the winter season. The north Bihar districts have witnessed worse AQI than southern districts due to the presence of silt and alluvial soil. Air quality in the south Bihar districts is comparatively better because they are rocky regions that generate less particulate matter. Besides, meteorological factors including temperature, fog condition, wind speed, and direction are also responsible for fluctuation of AQI.”

Ghosh said the installation of additional air monitoring stations is providing data regarding the state’s overall air pollution.

“Till last year, air monitoring stations were installed in only four to five cities. The number has increased to 35 across 22 districts this year. Hence, we are getting AQI data of different districts for the first time. We need to shift attention from the non-attainment cities as the data is evident that pollution levels in other cities have spiked as well. It is a common notion that urban areas are polluted while rural areas are cleaner. But in reality, 25% to 28% of urban pollution is contributed by rural areas.”

Since air is not compartmentalised, we need to implement a comprehensive action plan to reduce the overall air pollution in the state, Ghosh said.

What measures have been taken to reduce AQI?

BSPCB officials said several measures have been taken with the support of various departments for minimising air pollution in the state.

“Majority of construction sites are compulsorily using green screens to reduce the direct exposure of dust particles to the atmosphere. More than 60% of brick kilns have switched to clean technology while 2,000 additional brick kilns will switch by January 2023. Public vehicles including buses and auto-rickshaws have switched to CNG. We are also spreading awareness regarding stubble burning among farmers”, said a senior official of BSPCB.

Arvind Kumar Chaudhary, principal secretary (environment), said, “As AQI in the state has deteriorated, we have already alerted district magistrates of respective districts for special monitoring. In Patna, sweeping of road and sprinkling of water through machines is being done at a regular basis for settling down dust particles.”

“We are also using satellite imaging to monitor stubble burning and cracking down farmers practicing it. We have also found that stubble burning is high in eastern Uttar Pradesh which is affecting air quality of Bihar as well”, he added.

What doctors’ say:

The deteriorating AQI is telling on people’s health and causing chronic respiratory diseases. Increasing air pollution not only affects one’s lung, but also other organs. Some of the air pollutants are carcinogenic. So persistent poor air quality may lead to an increase in the number of cancer cases, said Dr. Kumar.

There has been up to 15%-30% surge in the number of patients with respiratory diseases at the Patna Medical College Hospital (PMCH) and the Nalanda Medical College Hospital (NMCH), the two state-run medical colleges in Patna, which have a combined patient footfall of nearly 5,000 patients every day.

“Nearly 50-60 patients coming to our outdoor patient department (OPD), suffer from chronic respiratory diseases, including tuberculosis, asthma, allergic problems, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and compromised lungs. Our average daily OPD footfall of such patients has now gone up to 50-60 from 40-45 a few months back,” said Dr. PK Agarwal, head, department of pulmonary medicine at the PMCH.

“Particles less than 2.5 microns are bad because they reach up to the alveoli, where the lungs and the blood exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide during the process of breathing in and breathing out, and can affect our cardiovascular system, causing coronary artery diseases and stroke,” Dr. Agarwal said.

Around 30% of the nearly 350 patients to the OPD and emergency of the medicine department these days account for those with chronic obstructive lung diseases, said Dr Ajay Kumar Sinha, head, department of medicine and also deputy superintendent of the NMCH.

“With the habit of smoking, and use of biomass for cooking going down, we expected cases of COPD to come down. On the contrary, the cases have gone up, and that’s essentially because of environmental pollution,” said Dr. Sinha.

The increasing number of vehicles on road, with no regular check on emissions, is one of the major factors for poor AQI, said Dr Ravindra Kumar, a private pulmonologist on Patna’s Boring-Patliputra Road.

So, what’s the way out?

Given the increasing level of pollution, Dr Sinha advocated the use of protective masks and vaccination against pneumonia and influenza for high-risk patients, including those suffering from diabetes, COPD, chronic kidney disease, or immuno-compromised diseases like cancer.

“One has to avoid dusty environment. Proper use of masks can help to some extent. Avoid going to places with foggy conditions, where air pollutants (or smog) are high. The government has to ensure adherence to regulations for building construction, as they produce a huge amount of dust. Implementation of tough measures for motor vehicles can go a long way in improving AQI,” added Dr. Kumar.

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