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|Air pollution level||Air quality index||Main pollutant|
|Unhealthy|| 152* US AQI||PM2.5|
PM2.5 concentration in Varanasi is currently 11.4 times the WHO annual air quality guideline value
Unhealthy 152 AQI US
|Saturday, Dec 9|
Unhealthy for sensitive groups 141 AQI US
|Sunday, Dec 10|
Unhealthy for sensitive groups 137 AQI US
|Monday, Dec 11|
Unhealthy 154 AQI US
|Tuesday, Dec 12|
Unhealthy 155 AQI US
|Wednesday, Dec 13|
Unhealthy 159 AQI US
|Thursday, Dec 14|
Unhealthy 159 AQI US
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Varanasi is a city in India with significant cultural and religious importance, being a sacred site across various faiths such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. It was also renowned in years past for its textile production, as well as perfumes and sculptures. Nowadays it still sees fervent activity, with a large population of some 1.69 million inhabitants living within the city’s limits. As well as this, there is a large amount of tourism seen in the city, not just hosting foreign holiday makers but also pilgrims visiting from both India and abroad, with a significant amount of local people coming here to visit the various holy sites along the river Ganges.
With a thriving tourist industry (pre covid-19 era) as well as a significant amount of manufacturing plants centered around the production of metals, textiles, printing and electronic items, there would thus be a significant amount of air pollution generated by these anthropogenic and industrial activities, as well as the mass movement of people.
In the early portion of 2021, Varanasi was seen coming in with PM2.5 readings as high as 297 μg/m³, a rarely seen number to appear in cities worldwide that heralds the fact that there is a severe amount of pollution occurring. Readings such as this would put those particular days in early February into the ‘hazardous’ ratings bracket, an elusive rating that requires a PM2.5 reading of 250.4 μg/m³ and above to be classified as such. Now whilst this level of pollution was not present every day, it still stands to reason that pollution in Varanasi is severe, with lows of 102.2 μg/m³ occurring, readings that by any means are many orders higher than the worst pollution readings in other cities round the world. This indicates that Varanasi is indeed subject to some badly polluted air, with the beginning of the year always signaling a polluted period for many cities across India.
With pollution readings going up into the hazardous bracket, and ‘lower’ averages going way in excess of 100 μg/m³ and beyond, it stands to reason that there would be a vast amount of negative health issues associated with breathing polluted air in Varanasi, particularly in areas that have higher concentrations of pollution, some of which will be discussed in short.
Some short term health issues would cause instances of severe coughs, chest and throat infections, triggering of preexisting health conditions such as asthma or skin rashes, as well as irritation to the mucous membranes, with the eyes, ears, nose and mouth all being extra sensitive to chemical exposure. More serious and chronic, or long term conditions would be a massive increase in cancer rates, particularly in vulnerable portions of the population or those that work or live within more highly polluted zones. Respiratory conditions such as bronchitis or emphysema would be common place, and damage to the blood vessels, lungs, kidneys, liver and even reproductive system are all possible, with fine forms of particulate matter being able to penetrate deep into the lung tissue and enter the blood stream, causing damage to every part of the body. These are a few of the ill effects of pollution exposure in Varanasi.
There are many people in the population that would suffer the most when exposed to highly polluted and smoke filled air, with certain groups being at risk due to their age or health, whilst others may be at further risk due to their social standing. Varanasi is home to an extremely large number of Ghats, or crematoriums located right next to the river Ganges. Many of the workers who are born into the profession of cremating bodies would be exposed to massive amounts of toxic chemicals and dangerous forms of particulate matter, as well as the many people that live in the vicinity of these sites.
Other groups at risk would be young children, who can develop lifelong ailments such as allergies or impaired lung function and stunted growth (as well as mental development) from excessive pollution exposure. Other groups would be the elderly, the sick or immunocompromised, as well as pregnant mothers.
As with many cities in India, much of its pollution would stem from what is primarily to be considered a combustion source, and then secondly the material which is being burnt. Massive amounts of wood, charcoal, plant matter, dried animal dung or many different types of organic material are burnt within the city, mainly due to the large amounts of ceremonies and rituals taking place. These materials are also burnt for the purposes of cooking, particularly in lower income areas where more traditional methods are still relied upon. Whilst this would have been somewhat acceptable in times past, the massive increase in population size causes these practices to create vast clouds of haze and smoke, that can contribute to the extreme elevations of pollution witnessed in the city.
As such, the main pollutants would be ones such as black carbon, volatile organic compounds (VOC's) such as benzene, formaldehyde and toluene, as well as nitrogen and sulfur dioxides, created mostly from vehicular emissions that ferry the citizens back and forth in their daily commutes throughout the city. Carbon monoxide would also be prevalent, along with ozone (O3) and even toxic metals such as lead, mercury or cadmium, as well as other chemicals such as dioxins or furans that can see their release from the open burning of waste as well as from factories.
The areas that would be subject to the worst pollution levels would be areas that see high volumes of traffic. Many roads, highways or motorways would have thick layers of road dust and black carbon carpeted on the surrounding areas. Other sites with high pollution in the atmosphere above or surrounding ground level would be industrial zones, power sites and factories, many of which rely on the combustion of coal or other fuels to supply their energy needs, and with an ever growing population, this would only be a rising factor in pollution in Varanasi.
Lastly, the cremation sites or Ghats would also be responsible for pouring out large amounts of smoke, haze and fumes, as a result of the large scale burning of wooden pyres and the bodies of those who have sought cremation there. These areas would all play host to extremely heightened readings of PM2.5, PM10 and the various other chemicals used in the calculation of the overall AQI, or air quality index