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Diwali Special: A gift of green

Can you grow your own fresh air? A new book by an environmentalist and an entrepreneur looks at simple methods for answer

Kamal Meattle, chairman emeritus of the Paharpur Business Centre.
Kamal Meattle, chairman emeritus of the Paharpur Business Centre.

The correlation between polluted or unsafe air and our cognitive ability has been a point of contention in numerous research studies. A recent study, The Impact Of Exposure To Air Pollution On Cognitive Performance, conducted in August by researchers from Yale University, Beijing Normal University and Peking University, found that exposure to air pollution was linked to a decline in cognition.

We spend almost 90% of our time indoors, but we do not realize that the air inside our office or house is not that great either. There is, in fact, a term for this: Sick building syndrome. According to a 1984 World Health Organization Committee report, up to 30% of new and remodelled buildings worldwide were the subject of excessive complaints related to indoor air quality. Inadequate ventilation and contaminants from indoor sources pollute the air we breathe, which has a direct implication on our productivity.

“The problem of air pollution is vast. I term it as a national health emergency. The awareness levels of the severity of the problem are very low.... What we need is good high-quality research that should be conducted in India and shows how severe the effects of air pollution are," says Barun Aggarwal, head of Breathe Easy Consultants Pvt Ltd. Aggarwal is the co-author of How To Grow Fresh Air, along with environmentalist Kamal Meattle, chairman emeritus of the Paharpur Business Centre (PBC), an Indian air pollution solutions provider.

In 2009, Meattle delivered a TED talk called “How To Grow Fresh Air". But how does one grow air? The answer is all around us: green plants.

“When you experiment, you find something which is inexpensive and works well," says Meattle. We are meeting him at Lattice, a rooftop lounge at PBC in Nehru Place, which is a green space with vertical gardens, pots of snake plant and areca palm retrofitted with small exhaust-like fans that circulate fresh air. Air quality monitors show the PM (extremely fine particulate matter) 2.5 levels in this sitting area to be 1-2. On an average, these levels elsewhere in Delhi are way over the safe standard, going up to 207.25.

Meattle tells Lounge why air pollution needs to be tackled as a matter of urgency and how we can manage the air around us. Edited excerpts:

You say in the book that ‘air pollution makes a great news story, and that’s about it...’ Do you feel there is a need to focus on air pollution on a daily basis?

Absolutely. If you value your life, then you have to do it. I think the first thing to do is to understand: What is the size of your lungs? Most people have no idea about the surface area of the lungs. It is about 40 times the area of your skin or roughly half the size of a full-fledged tennis court or more, depending upon your size. When you visualize that, you start thinking that your (lung’s) surface area is so large. If the dirty air that I am breathing is going to cover this entire surface area...what happens when the PM 2.5 levels or the VOCs (volatile organic compounds) are high?

One must understand the basic concept of how the oxygen that we breathe in the air goes into the blood. There are about half a billion alveoli hanging in our lungs. When we breathe the air, this air is covering this huge surface. So the air cover is very thin. The moisture in the alveoli absorbs the oxygen and now there is blood coming back from our system which is going inside the alveoli. There is less oxygen in the blood coming back versus the oxygen level which we are breathing on the surface of the alveoli. Through osmosis, from the high pressure area to the low pressure area, the oxygen travels and oxygenates the blood, which goes back into our system.

But along with the oxygen, the PM 1s— which are about 80-90% of Delhi’s air—go into our system or arteries and lodge themselves. You must remember that you breathe in the PM 2.5s but you breathe out zero PM 2.5s. They all go into your system. If you live in Delhi, they first get trapped in your nose, next in the surface of your lungs and the PM 1s go into your arteries, so sooner or later you will need stents. That is not understood.

You also say that ‘I am alive because of nature’.

Some years ago my younger son told me you are like a typical Ayurved who has found something, doesn’t talk about it and you will die with your idea. That’s why I went and did this TED Talk (in 2009). I thought I had done my work. Then the question was: Why don’t we say what we have learnt over the years, including the purification system, in simple language, put it down in a book, so that people can become aware of the problem, talk about it, think of a solution for themselves... maybe there is a better solution available tomorrow. So, the idea is to get this talk going that: yes, our pollution is an issue. We must do something about it for our own lives, whether I am a chowkidaar (guard) or a policeman. I could be anybody. It (the book) is for anybody and everybody.

The day after Diwali is probably one of the toughest for people in Delhi. How does one cope?

Delhi is not livable from October-March, from Diwali to Holi. If you have a choice, leave. If you don’t have a choice, and you have to be here, you must watch out. If you buy an air purifier, you must make sure that it does not emit ozone. Air purifiers that are certified for “OK" in the EU are not okay here because the ozone levels in the EU are not that high. So you must be aware. If you just want to eliminate the PM 2.5, you must get an air purifier of some kind. If you also want the CO2 levels to be low, to improve your cognitive abilities, then you get into a different kind of solution.... Suppose you want to exercise. At least check the AQI (air quality index). If it’s more than 150-200, forget about trying to jog and walk. Open your windows when there is cleaner air. There are many simple things you can do.

PBC has excellent air quality inside the building. But one can’t stay indoors all the time. You mention three plants in the book. Why can’t we do something similar outdoors?

These three plants (areca palm, money plant and mother-in-law’s tongue) we picked were inexpensive, easy to maintain and effective. But all kinds of trees, plants do photosynthesis. But when there is high level of pollution, the stomata get covered with muck and they stop the photosynthesis process. If you wash these leaves and open up the stomata, they do their job. One way is to wash all these trees, right to the treetops. We have been doing this at home. Now you see the Delhi municipal bodies, the MCD and the NDMC, are washing the trees, so that is certainly a good solution. That the road dust doesn’t spread too much is another solution. There has to be a concerted policy of the government, which is not there.

How did you zero in on these plants?

We were looking for quick solutions and we started thinking about our heritage. The question was: why did lord Buddha sit under the peepal (sacred fig) tree and not any other? Why are there tulsi plants in most Indian homes? Let’s start there and experiment... There could be a 100 more plants (that might work). We are conducting more exercises to find plants that produce something besides cleaning the air, that produce something that is edible and usable in some other way... These are tried and tested methods.

In the chapter on air purifiers, you say the ‘best ones are also the most expensive ones’. Do you think the cheaper ones are good options?

I think India is a country where you see the Maruti Alto and you also see the Rolls-Royce. What we have talked about is: if you want a perfect solution, they are available. It depends on what you can afford. But to say that I can do nothing about it, is not true. For example, most homes don’t know or don’t think about burning agarbattis (incense sticks) and whether it is a great idea. It is a great idea if you have your windows open. These are small things to be thought through.

You have quoted a 2016 Harvard study on healthy buildings and how air quality may have an impact on an individual’s productivity. What should organizations do to make their buildings healthy?

I have headed a committee of CII-GBC (Confederation of Indian Industry-Godrej Green Business Centre) for health and well-being. We are the first building in India or on IGBC (Indian Green Building Council) to be rated as platinum. And there are now others following. In my opinion, today green buildings should get themselves a rating for health and well-being. We cannot have smart cities with dumb people…. Who are you building these cities for? Human beings. What are you doing to make sure that these human beings achieve their full potential in that building? It is not by just saving electricity and water. It is by making sure that the person is healthy or healthier in that particular building.

You say ‘we still have a long way to go before we can enjoy fresh air’.

It is a question of awareness and action. If the government and leaders want to do it, they can do it. They are doing it but it seems like they are being pushed to do it because of public opinion and the courts. For example, we still don’t have the Euro VI cars. If a Maybach, which is a top of the line Mercedes Benz, is being shipped to India, they would have to remove the diesel particulate filter. Why? Because the diesel particulate filter only works when the diesel has less than 10 parts per million of sulphur. In Delhi, this year, they have introduced the Euro VI diesel and petrol. But what do you do if you have a car in Delhi and want to take it to Mumbai?

Second, is of course the burning of paddy waste...where there are solutions... It will take time. But there has to be the focus that it is an emergency and we have to do it.

What’s in the air around you

PM 2.5: This form of particulate matter (dust, dirt, soot, combustion particles, smoke or metal) is 2.5 micrometers or smaller. An average strand of human hair is 70 micrometers in diameter—that’s 30 times larger than these particles. PM 2.5 particles are so fine, and inhalable, that they can go deep into the lungs and enter our bloodstream.

Formaldehyde and VOCs: Formaldehyde comes from plastic, carpets, furniture and other building materials. It is a colourless gas that is water soluble. Its pungent odour makes it easy to detect, and causes irritation in the eyes and respiratory tract.

VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, are organic chemicals that vaporize at room temperature. Many indoor sources like perfumes, hair sprays, dry cleaning fluid, paints, etc., emit VOCs. Prolonged exposure to VOCs can damage the lungs and affect the kidneys.

Ozone: The ozone that occurs in the upper atmosphere is the “good ozone" that shields the planet from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. But the ozone that is created on the ground level is termed bad ozone. It is the result of chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen and other VOCs when they are exposed to sunlight. The exhaust in vehicles, industrial facilities and even some electric appliances are known sources of ground-level ozone.

What makes these three plants special

Areca palm (‘Dypsis lutescens’) is a great plant to convert CO2 into oxygen. The air will definitely be fresher if you have this plant in a closed room. The plant works effectively even in an open room. Areca palm plants need bright natural light to function. But they should be kept away from direct, harsh light. These plants grow well in moist, well-drained soil and need a liquid fertilizer, with nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in equal proportions.

Plants required per person: four plants that are at least shoulder- length high.

The mother-in-law’s tongue (‘Sansevieria trifasciata’) or the snake plant does the same job through chemical synthesis, mostly at night. This perennial evergreen plant exchanges oxygen and carbon dioxide using a process called CAM (crassulacean acid metabolism) photosynthesis, found in few plant species. This allows the plant to survive in harsh conditions, making it a low-maintenance plant to keep at home.

These plants require bright, indirect light and work better in sterile manure, devoid of any bacteria or fungus. Since it is known for its ability to produce oxygen at night, keep it in the bedroom.

Plants required per person:six.

The money plant (‘Epipremnum aureum’) helps reduce formaldehyde, found in every home and office, and other pollutants such as carbon monoxide. While these plants can be grown in soil, they work equally well in hydroponics or water. They require bright to semi-dark light and survive easily indoors. It is a remarkably strong air-purifying plant that only requires regular watering. The best way to keep the plant clean is to hold it by the stem, wash it in water, change the water in the bowl and put it back again.

Plants required per person: 40-50 stems if grown in water, and five 8-inch pots if grown in soil.

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