How To Grow Fresh Air: Two experts weigh in on how Indians can look within their homes to fight pollution

Of the many challenges involved in moving to Delhi, one of the most evident is dealing with the city's pollution, especially by the time November comes around. Everyday, I wake up with a headache, my mouth constantly tastes like dust, and I start wheezing the moment I step outside for a run. This isn’t news. Every year, around Dussehra, pollution levels in Delhi turn it into a gas chamber, and its residents are slowly poisoned by the smoke from fires.

We have been educated and warned about the reasons for this near-dystopian level of pollution several times. Farmers burn their leftover crops in the neighbouring states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. The fireworks and effigies burnt during the festival season exacerbates the situation. The cold air traps this thick cocktail of smog, full of carcinogens like nitrogen dioxide and benzene. And every year, as the situation worsens, authorities — though well-intentioned — come up with solutions that do not quite fix the mammoth problem. Even when rules, such as the recent Supreme Court order that imposed restrictions on the use and sale of firecrackers, are put in place, the implementation leaves much to be desired.

Pollution impacts our health in a number of ways, from respiratory problems to cardiovascular disorders and reduced cognitive function. Figures from a 2016 WHO study show that over 1,00,000 children of the same age died of air pollution in that year in India. It is extremely difficult to get people to stop creating fires for survival or performing rituals that involve burning, but Kamal Meattle and Barun Aggarwal’s new book How To Grow Fresh Air — born out of Meattle’s TED Talk on growing fresh air with plants — explores the possibility of curbing the effects of Delhi’s pollution inside our houses.

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Since the main focus is on curbing outdoor pollution, the problem of indoor pollution — which is as dangerous, if not more — is often overlooked. According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, India had the highest mortality figures from indoor pollution in 2016, with 7,83,000 deaths. Meattle claims that those in metropoles spend around 80-90 percent of their time indoors, breathing in dangerous toxins released from paints, varnishing on furniture, and the plastic that surrounds them.

In trying to create cleaner air, Meattle, and later Aggarwal, realised that it was easier to work independently on cleaning indoor air, rather than implementing behavioural change to clean outdoor air. So, the duo began working towards cleaning air inside their own homes, workplaces, and the offices of clients like Microsoft, HP and Fabindia — a task that would span across nearly three decades. Today, they are among the top clean air experts in the country; Meattle is a trustee of Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project, while Aggarwal founded the clean air company Breathe Easy, as well as the Indian Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ISHRAE).

The main sources of indoor pollutants are carbon dioxide, particulate matter from outdoors, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Meattle explains that both rural and urban living styles create pollutants. While rural living styles use gobar cakes or wood for cooking in small one-room houses, in urban areas, high vehicular pollution contributes majorly to pollution. However, Meattle says, "The real problem is that there is not enough awareness of the health issues, and solutions to indoor pollution.”

The carbon dioxide and PM 2.5 levels in Meattle’s office buildings, Parahpur Business Center, are lower than the worldwide standard, which should be less than 600 ppm over ambient air. To achieve such low levels, Meattle installed a scrubber on the rooftop of the building, and bionically (without soil) planted more than 7,000 plants. The scrubber cleans ambient pollutants, and the plants create oxygen that circulates around the building. Independent studies conducted by Paharpur Business Center have shown a 20 percent increase in productivity because of the fresh air produced in the building. This result is similar to Harvard’s 2015 studies, which showed a 26.4 percent increase in cognitive functioning in green buildings across US metropoles. Along with introducing plants, the book mentions installing solar panels, waste management systems and introducing co-working spaces to improve the air quality in offices.

At home, Meattle and Aggarwal suggest lifestyle changes, a mix of basic suggestions like daily vacuuming, and recommendations on specific things, such as furniture. The main focus should be on eliminating sources of VOCs — gases released from objects in a state of flux, emitted from almost all objects around us. The most harmful VOCs are carcinogenic, and mostly released from paint, varnishes, and indoor furniture. To reduce VOC emission, Meattle and Aggarwal suggest living a sparse life, and preferably only using furniture made from natural woods, like teak.

Other suggestions include keeping agarbattis, strong smelling perfumes, loose powders, and candles out of the bedroom. All paint jobs should be done outside of the bedroom, if not the house. The authors also emphasise the need to cross-ventilate rooms every day. According to the duo, the best time to cross-ventilate the house is from 1 pm to 3 pm, when Delhi is at its hottest and least polluted.

The readers are warned that some of the suggestions may seem a little extreme, like switching out house cleaners for vinegar, or throwing out newspapers for digital news, as newspaper ink is toxic. The latter may not be an accessible option for those from the lower socio-economic strata of society. Equally inaccessible are air purifiers — the cheapest mentioned in the book costs Rs 3500 — which require a constant electricity source and can lead to a jump in the figures of electricity bills.

Unsurprisingly, an accessible option is introducing plants into our homes. Taken from Meattle’s TED Talk, the book suggests having three different plants in the house: The money plant, which removes carbon monoxide and formaldehyde; the areca palm, which acts as a carbon sink and releases oxygen; and the mother-in-law’s tongue, which absorbs nitrogen oxide, xylene, carbon monoxide, benzene, and formaldehyde.

All three plants are quite hardy, and don’t need much care. Nonetheless, the book gives very specific details on how to plant, water, and maintain them. If the areca palm and mother-in-law’s tongue are too difficult to acquire, Meattle suggests simply bionically planting the money plant. “Instead of the clay pot, one could make a slit in a throwaway mineral water PET bottle and grow the money plant in just water. [It would be] Rs 515 for a string of five such bottles [with the plants].”

When asked about the future of safer homes, Meattle said that lifestyle changes are more important than eco-friendly products, as they will contribute to one’s general wellness.“If the focus is on health and well-being, the occupant [of a green home] will be able to feel the difference in their own health, resulting in enhanced happiness.” said Meattle.

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Updated Date: Nov 18, 2018 14:40:29 IST

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