India's Diesel Cars Are Proving Lethal

Exhaust from the subsidized fuel causes cancer, asthma, and more
Photograph by Kuni Takahashi/Bloomberg

Molecular biologist George Easow’s move to India to start a clinical diagnostics business lasted just three weeks before he decided to give up and return to the U.K. Within days of the family’s move to New Delhi, his 7-month-old daughter, Fiona, was wheezing and gasping for air because of smog. “She could hardly breathe,” says her father.

Fiona was kept indoors and put on medication. Nothing worked. “We had to make a call,” Easow says, adding that her symptoms disappeared once they were back in the U.K. and haven’t returned. For the 16.8 million residents of India’s capital, the wheezing continues. The bad news is, it’s going to get worse.

Cities across India suffer from some of the poorest air quality in the world. The problem is so severe that it’s costing the country 1.1 trillion rupees ($18 billion) annually in the shortened life spans of productive members of the urban population, according to a June World Bank report.

While Beijing and Shanghai air pollution caused by coal-burning factories are well known, Delhi residents suffer even more by some measures, though the main source of the smog is cars and trucks running on cheap diesel. Indian government subsidies for the fuel add up to $15 billion a year. Farmers and truckers, both big voting blocs, rely on cheap diesel.

India’s diesel-powered vehicles pump out exhaust gases with 10 times the carcinogenic particles found in gasoline exhaust. The result: Delhi’s air on average last year was laced with double the toxic particles per cubic meter reported in Beijing, leading to respiratory diseases, lung cancer, and heart attacks. “I have no doubt, 100 percent, that diesel exhaust is contributing to a rise in asthma, respiratory illnesses, and hospitalizations,” says Dr. T.K. Joshi, director of Delhi’s Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health at Maulana Azad Medical College.

Diesel passenger vehicles accounted for 49 percent of all new cars sold in India last year, up from a third in 2008, according to the nonprofit International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT). The market share of diesel-powered cars is surging in part because the fuel sells at a 24 percent discount to gasoline, which is not subsidized. Besides being cheaper—about $3.34 a gallon in Delhi—diesel gets better mileage. In comparison, only 0.5 percent of China’s new passenger cars run on diesel, according to Germany’s Bosch Group, which makes auto exhaust cleaning systems for diesel vehicles.

India’s diesel-powered cars comply with emissions standards that are at least nine years behind Europe’s. These cars will remain on the roads for years even if tougher rules are introduced, says Anup Bandivadekar, India program director for the ICCT. “The future implications are what make the problem so worrisome,” he says.

Airborne particulate pollution causes more than 116,000 deaths annually in India, afflicting the younger, most productive members of the population the most, according to Muthukumara Mani, senior environmental economist at the World Bank. A World Health Organization report says air pollution contributed to 620,000 premature deaths in India in 2010. India’s diesel exhaust systems lack Europe’s mandatory emission-scrubbing technology, but most locally refined diesel contains so much sulfur that it would ruin the equipment.

Carmakers say they want clear directions from the government. “The auto industry has been asking for a single regime of fuel and emission norms across the country,” says C.V. Raman, executive director of engineering at Maruti Suzuki. A move to current European standards for the fuel would reduce emissions as much as 80 percent, he says.

India’s state-owned refineries may prove to be the stumbling block to cleaner fuel. Hindustan Petroleum, Indian Oil, and Bharat Petroleum have little incentive to upgrade refineries to produce fuel lower in sulfur because they lose money on every gallon of diesel sold. Upgrading one refinery to make diesel fuel as clean as Europe’s would cost 25 billion rupees, says S. Roy Choudhury, chairman of Hindustan Petroleum. “Diesel prices need to be increased to cut demand. That’s the primary issue,” he says. Yet the government policy of subsidizing diesel is unlikely to end soon, as it would raise prices during an election year.

Diesel engines emit pollutants in the category known as PM2.5, or airborne particles and liquid droplets measuring less than 2.5 micrometers—one-thirtieth the width of a strand of hair. Because they’re so small, they penetrate deep into the lungs and pass into the bloodstream, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In 2013, the annual average concentration of PM2.5 in New Delhi was 173 micrograms per cubic meter, compared with 89.5 micrograms in Beijing, according to data from India’s Central Pollution Control Board and the Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center. The World Health Organization says people should not be exposed to more than 10 micrograms a year.

Fine particulate matter is also produced in India by coal-fired power plants, diesel generators, and cooking fuel. But the major source in the cities is vehicles, says Sumit Sharma, a fellow at the Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi. “That’s dangerous because it’s happening closer to the breathing level of people,” says Sharma. “It’s not happening from a 220-meter-high chimney but at the level of one meter.”

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