How to breathe in a choking city

  • Environment
  • Thursday, 11 Jan 2018

Kamal Meattle has set up an office building he says filters air till it's as fresh as the Swiss Alps. -Photos: AFP

Political apathy over the poisonous smog choking New Delhi, India’s capital, has led many like businessman Kamal Meattle to take matters into their own hands, with an office building he says pumps air as fresh as from the Swiss Alps.

From the outside, the Paharpur Business Centre looks like any modern office block. But inside it is a virtual jungle where rooms and corridors are lined with more than 7,000 potted plants and creepers.

The greenhouse terrace, with artificial grass and green walls, houses an “air washing” system that moves polluted outside air through a series of cleaning filters.

It is then pushed through the greenhouse where the plants remove bacteria, fungus, carbon dioxide and other toxins, before the air conditioning pumps it to workers on the floors below.

“It would be like working in Gulmarg in Kashmir or Davos in Switzerland in this building,” 73-year-old Meattle told AFP as he looked out at the smog from the protection of the lush rooftop nursery.

“You are actually right now sitting in an air tank,” he said, referring to the greenhouse where PM2.5 – the most harmful haze particles in the air – registered nearly zero compared with 415 outside (more than 16 times the World Health Organisation’s safe limit), according to Paharpur’s monitoring system.

Employees eat in the greenhouse cafeteria at the Paharpur Business Centre in New Delhi.

(PM2.5 refers to the size of 2.5 micrometers, or about 30 times smaller than human hair. Since the particles are so small and light, they hover longer in the air. They also penetrate deep into the lungs and even our bloodstream. They are said to trigger or worsen asthma, heart attack, bronchitis and other respiratory problems.)

A ‘selfish’ solution

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate and trustee of Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project, Meattle began thinking about a clean air office project years ago when he rejected doctors’ advice to move away from the polluted capital for his health.

“I wanted a solution for myself and I didn’t want to leave Delhi,” he said.

His centre, whose tenants include Amazon, Samsung and Microsoft, is now rated the city’s healthiest building by the Indian government, and Meattle says people who work there benefit from improved blood oxygen levels, better brain function, and fewer asthma and eye irritation cases.

Delhi chokes every winter as cool air traps a toxic blend of pollutants from crop burning, car exhausts, open fires, construction dust and industrial emissions close to the ground.

The annual scourge has been particularly bad this season, and short-term measures – such as shutting factories and restricting car use – have failed to have a significant impact.

In November, doctors declared a public health emergency and schools were shut across the capital. – AFP

One guy was at a sugarcane juice stall and saw a diesel engine spewing out smoke until the wall behind was blackened. Hey, why not turn that pollution into ink and paint?

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