The Initiative for Green Habitats represents a long term commitment towards providing solutions for the creation of Sustainable Built Environments. This blog attempts to provide an insight to our views, commentaries on our work, ideas that we are working on, and provoke thought where there are more questions than answers.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Kicking up Dust - Linking construction activity to health

A walk in the (dusty) clouds.... Where? Our fast growing cities!
It is high time that we give importance to health issues due to construction activities. The responsibility of professionals associated with the construction industry goes beyond the merits of the end product. The general well being of those who live and work within and beyond 'the site' HAS to be our responsibility. Look around you and all you see is apathy. Work being carried out with no concern for the fall outs.
Dust pollution has gone up visibly in our rapidly developing cities, and this is taking its toll on it's inhabitants. While it puts construction personnel at the highest risk, it is an increasing factor for the rise of respiratory diseases in our cities. A statistic by the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board puts construction generated dust pollution at about 14% of the contributing factors for Suspended Particulate Matter in the air. In the construction industry the most prevalent of these diseases are chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma and silicosis. However, chronic fungal infections (carried on dust), interstitial lung disease, silicosis which increases the risk of Tuberculosis, and even carcinoma have been stated as possible fall-outs of dust related health issues. This can be verified by a simple Internet search.  It is appalling that it has not yet become a topic of public debate.
The major contributors of dust are bad practices at construction sites, callousness of workers, unprotected storage of construction material & debris, shoddy maintenance and incomplete works. Movement of vehicles to and from  construction sites, and those carrying construction material and debris, without adequate checks like watering down at points of egress, cause further dust pollution. Transporting materials without proper covering  spreads dust way beyond the peripheries of the construction sites. If we identify these points of origin, we should be able to put in place checks to curb dust pollution.
A quick perusal of the Karnataka Pollution Control Board's website (could apply to other cities as well) shows a stark picture. For a city this large, only 6 points have any recurring statistics at all! This is hardly enough to draw a clear picture of the the extent of air pollution across the city, let alone construction related dust pollution. There seems to be no monitoring being carried out near major arteries where large scale construction projects are underway (metro, underpasses, flyovers, road widening/laying, etc). What we need is a more wide-spread and dynamic data gathering and sharing process of air pollution levels which can be monitored closely. This would also also enable the linking of pollution levels with specific activities, which can then be a support for taking action. While there are clear benchmarks for acceptable levels of emissions from DG sets for example, there don't seem to be any clear norms for what ambient dust levels should be for construction sites in specific. Broader SPM (Suspended Particulate Matter) and RSPM (Respirable Suspended Particulate Matter) figures are available, but none for points of origin (like construction sites) where concentration levels are much higher.
From roads to building sites, we see construction debris strewn about and a haze of dust. This haze does not restrict itself to the site and is spread by air movements to cover a wider area. This is evident in the browning of plants, and parked vehicles around the site, often beyond visible distance. While it is shocking to see construction workers working without protective gear, what is greater concern is the scale to which this problem has grown. 
Construction dust affects all of us in more than one way:
  • Most importantly, it affects general health, leading to a slew of respiratory disorders, eye/throat irritation, etc.
  • It causes damage to property
  • It leads to environmental deterioration... air and water pollution
  • It creates a poor quality of life and workplace... both basic needs of citizens
It is very surprising to see that precious little has been done to reduce this growing problem.The 'Polluter Pays' model has been discussed ad-nauseum in various fora, but dust pollution due to construction is limited to only a single point stipulation to exercise control in the bye-laws and earns one credits in one of two green certification for buildings in the country. Nearly all construction sites are devoid of even signage warning against the generation of dust, or, the wearing of adequate masks. A simple search on the 'AIR (PREVENTION AND CONTROL OF POLLUTION) ACT, 1981', (or its amendment) does not have the word construction or the word dust in it! SurprisingHere are a couple of definitions that caught my eye:
  • "air pollutant" means any solid, liquid or gaseous substance 1(including noise) present in the atmosphere in such concentration as may be or tend to be injurious to human beings or other living  creatures or plants  or property or environment;  
  • "air pollution" means the presence in the atmosphere of any air pollutant;  
Doesn't dust qualify as an air pollutant? And wouldn't construction be seen as a major contributor of dust pollution? On a single page document on the KSPCB website, termed as 'Measures to combat Air Pollution in Bangalore city' there is no mention of construction dust. Their entire pre-occupation is with types of combustion fuels. I think Pollution Control Board/s have to wake up and take notice of construction dust as a major contributor to respiratory diseases.

Here is what we think ought to be done:
  1. Draw out a policy on construction related dust pollution. 
  2. Make dust pollution a statutory offence. It does amount to serious negligence on the part of the executing agencies.
  3. Clearly spell out the guidelines to be followed strictly at EVERY construction site and in ALL construction activities.(This is not that difficult. There are very clear processes, and measures that can be followed to ensure compliance. Of course this involves extra effort and a wee bit more money, but the gains are more than significant.)
  4. Educate the public of their rights and their right to complain. Make grievance addressal a fast-track forum.
  5. Have a working monitoring mechanism with greater powers with local bodies and not merely some centralised body.
It would be important to note here that our cities reflect us. To a great degree, our cities are in the state they are because of how little importance we place on excesses like dust. The lesser we complain, the less we take steps to demand basic health standards, the more dust is going to get kicked up.