I’ve been putting off writing this post for a week because I’m afraid I won’t do justice to it! The talk with Barun Aggarwal of Breathe Easy Consultants about air quality/ pollution in Mumbai was so powerful! It was a LOT of info, uncomfortable to hear, and I left feeling overwhelmed at first and then empowered.
I highly recommend you come to hear Barun in person because he’s extremely knowledgeable and passionate. But in the meantime, here are some of my notes from the talk:
Barun’s story: His father-in-law Kamal Meattle had severe lung problems living in Delhi back in the early 90s. His doctor told him he had to move out of Delhi. Instead of moving, he worked with the board of IIT to import expensive instruments to measure air quality of his office and became a pioneer in Indoor Air Quality (IAQ). He was able to improve his lung capacity. He spoke of the air pollution as an “invisible problem.” Kamal saved millions of trees in India, by changing the practice of shipping fruit in wooden boxes. Now all fruit is shipped in cardboard boxes instead. Kamal Meattle did this very popular TED talk How to Grow Your Own Fresh Air using indoor plants.
Transforming the air in his office: In this Forbes article you can read all about how Kamal Meattle transformed the air quality of his office in Nehru Place, Delhi. The building has thousands of plants, a greenhouse on the roof, and has won many awards for being one of the healthiest building in Delhi. You can read more about the Paharpur Business Center here.
The beginning of Breathe Easy: When Barun moved back to Delhi from the US with his wife and 2 kids, he started the Breathe Easy consultancy, also out of personal need for clean air solutions for his family’s health. In 2015, Barack Obama came to visit Delhi and there was a lot of negative press about how the air quality was so bad that the trip took 6 hours off his life. Also at that time, the WHO announced that Delhi surpassed Beijing for having the worst air quality in the world. So – unfortunately – business did well.
Then we moved into the Q&A portion of the evening.
A mom asked about her child’s persistent cough and cold. As Barun explained to us, the problem is the very fine particulate of air pollution that impacts us even during pregnancy. The particles are so small that they go directly into the bloodstream and affect every organ in the body. The amount that a child breathes relative to their body mass is more than an adult. Their lungs are growing and developing until age 10-11. While studies have shown that Indian lungs are 30% weaker than Western lungs. However, it has been proven that this is NOT genetics but a product of the environment. One problem is that since we have 2 lungs, until 70% of the lungs are damaged, you may not feel the impact of air pollution.
Barun claimed that the impact of air pollution is like smoking 2-10 cigarettes a day, as non-smokers. So it’s very important to protect our kids when they are young and the most vulnerable.
He also referenced the garbage dump near Chembur that is often on fire and the related high rate of miscarriage in the area.
Is Mumbai better because we’re near the sea? We’re actually not much better off for being near to the sea. First of all, it depends which way the wind is blowing. Also, the sea produces ozone, and the combination of ozone and PM 2.5 (the small particulate) is not great for us. Ironically the best time of day for lower air pollution is mid-day, but most of us stay in to avoid the heat and sun in the middle of the day. Early morning and evening are the worst. (I found this out the hard way by going running on the beach in the mornings. After 1 week, I had a hacking cough and had to stop.)
Barun reminded us that it’s in our power to test our air quality so we’re not guessing. We live near the sea and my husband always claims that the air quality is so great, but it’s really easy to refute that if you have a sensor.
Are plants helpful? YES. He mentioned 3 plants that you can keep inside your home that are found to be especially helpful. The money plant helps to remove VOCs from the air. The areca palm is great for cleaning the air during the day. And the sansevieria plant is especially helpful for removing CO2 from the air at night. However, you do need a lot of plants to help clean the air. You also have to wipe the dust from the plants regularly so the stomata are open and can do their work. You ideally want to be using plants in conjunction with air purifiers.
We talked a lot about CO2. While we sat in the yoga studio for the talk, it was a confined space with about 30 people. Barun showed us on the air quality sensor that the CO2 level had gone up to 3000 ppm, which is quite high. The same thing happens in your confined bedroom at night. The CO2 accumulates and makes you feel groggy in the morning.
This is not a perfect solution, but ever since the talk I’ve been sure to open our windows in the morning to release that CO2 that has accumulated. Then I close the windows again and turn the air purifiers on. We also open the windows mid-day. But I tend to want to keep them closed because of the mosquitos.
What are the causes of air pollution? We all know about the crop burning in the 3 states around Delhi, which is a complex issue because the farmer’s are trying to quickly turnover the crops to get 3 planting seasons a year. Also diesel fuel is worse than petrol. We can shut our car engines at red lights. The kilns that are used for making bricks release a lot of pollution. Garbage burning is bad.
Do kids need to “build up immunity” to the environment? Absolutely not. They need to be protected. The cigarette analogy is apt. You wouldn’t say that your kid needs to develop immunity to cigarette smoke, you know it’s your responsibility to protect your kid from cigarette smoke. Sure, they do have to go out and live their life. However, you can make the home and sleeping environment where they likely spend 12+ a day into a green zone so their lungs can heal in the night.
Barun also used the analogy that we all drink filtered water now. We wouldn’t think of giving our kids water that is not filtered. In the same way, we should be thinking about protecting them from the air pollution.
He suggested downloading the AIR VISUAL app for your phone so you can check the air pollution levels. And he suggested making a rule for yourself and your family – such as, that we won’t go out if the API is over 200. I have the app on my phone and I do make decisions for me and my daughters based on the readings. (It also shows me the API level in Delhi and I’m often surprised how Mumbai is not that much better.)
What about running outside? Barun doesn’t recommend it – definitely not in Delhi. Sorry to say. I know we don’t want to hear it.
We covered a lot more during the talk, the Q&A went on for TWO hours! But my notes tapered off there!
On a positive note … I think when people first hear this information, it’s natural to feel resistance. We feel like we can’t live in a bubble and stay inside all the time. I can say this – in the past few months, I’ve learned a lot about air quality. I’ve set up really good air purifiers in my home. I open my windows to release the CO2. I use an air purifier in the car. I’m getting plants for inside. And now that these systems are set up – they are running in the background, giving me tremendous peace of mind. I’m not obsessing about it every day. I’m just living my life, but I do feel like I have powerful tools to help keep us healthy.
And … if you can believe it … this is the outermost filter on the air purifier in my daughter’s room after only 2 weeks! CRAZY! But I can’t even tell you how good it makes me feel that all this gunk is not in her lungs!
If you’re living in Mumbai and want to talk about air quality, let me know. I’m happy to chat more about it and share what I’ve learned. And please sign up for the newsletter to get informed about future talks!